The Old Way. Aloha.

My companion turns his head to me, as though only now has he seen me. Last night I flew in from Honolulu, the plane shuttering as we descended through the cloud bank, then steady in the calm air, clusters of lights below, and I was pulled forward as we landed and braked. Kona.

My driver seemed as unsure as me as she turned down a single lane road in the dark to Gingerhill Farm, high above the town, turning to our right and left, so we only saw walls of foliage until everything opened before us. I listened to the sounds of chirping – “coqui frogs,” she said, “an invasive species.”

I walked along the porch, following the directions Zack had texted me, pushed open a screen door, found the bed, and disappeared into sleep, believing I was alone, but in the morning discovered I was sharing the room with a gold dust gecko, resting so still I thought he was just a rubber toy, until he looked at me, as though I was an intruder in his space.

“Geckos are not from here,” says Zack as he serves me breakfast on the lanai. A feral cat follows him, walking an arc around me, just out of my reach.

“How much of this is planted?” I ask, pointing to the foliage surrounding us.

“All of it,” he says. “We planted it all. Cleared out what was here and planted this.”

A Japanese woman in her early eighties joins us. Mayumi Oda, Zack’s mother. They speak in Japanese. His father, who lives in California, met his mother when he lived in Japan. His wife, Iris, from Brazil appears, and he switches to Portuguese. They excuse themselves and I sit with Mayumi. I ask about the farm, which she bought twenty years ago.”

“So much work,” she says. “Hard to keep up with.” I look at the jungle of trees and fruits and vines. Among the leaves are geckos hunting. At night the coqui will wake and sing for mates.

Mayumi walks me to her painting studio. Resting on an enormous harvest table is a near-done thanka (a traditional Tibetan painting of a bodhisattva). I mention this and she acknowledges the tradition, but says, “I do it in my own style,” and I notice her breaks from the form.

The next three days, I rise at dawn and meditate with Zack, Iris, and Mayumi, sitting in her living room, facing the Pacific below, watching the sun rise and listening as the coqui slowly quiet themselves. One day I have a private yoga class with Iris. I think my poses are perfectly mirroring hers, but several times she she breaks her poses to step over me and firmly push my body to the right position. Another day, with a teacher and Mayumi, I awkwardly move through the slow-motion-martial-arts moves of Tai Chi. On my last day, I have a cooking class with the farm’s Filipino chef and Zack guides me through the farm, the goats and 500 pound pig greeting him, not knowing the day will come when he must end their lives.

In my time alone, I return to Joko Beck’s “Everyday Zen” and her talk, “Relationships Don’t Work.” After noting that every moment of our lives is in relationships, she says she wants to talk about our illusion that relationships will work.

“See, they don’t. They simply don’t work. There never was a relationship that worked. You may say, ‘Well, why are we doing all this practice if that’s true?’ It’s the fact that we want something to work that makes our relationships so unsatisfactory.”

Alani picks me up to drive me to the airport. She lets me sit with her in the front. She is in her late sixties, a large Hawaiian woman, laughing as she talks. She is telling about a tourist she picked up who propositioned her. “You crazy?!?” she says.

She tells me about her husband. They met in their twenties. He is from Mexico, was in the Marine Corps, and asked her to marry him three times. The first two times, she said no, but then, she explains to me, pointing to the sky, “He said I was here to save him. So I married him.”

I ask what happened.

“It didn’t work,” she says.

After some silence, she says, “If we had less aloha spirit, there would be less haloes.” I nod, thinking not just about the foreigners (including me), but the plants, the coqui, the geckos. “But that is the old way. And I teach it to my kids.”

At the airport, I want to hug her. She remains in her seat. Smiles. “Aloha, Chris.” And then I am on the plane, rumbling down the runway, breaking into the air, arcing right, back to Honolulu, into the clouds, thinking about the garden of my own life, and wondering what is the best practice for tending to it.

Sunday Morning

After we were out late last night (unusual) and slept in late (also unusual), my wife sits outside in the sun and in her garden drinking coffee and talking with a friend. The cat, who may not go outside (and the last time he did, left paw prints on the outside of the door as he hopelessly tried to open it and get back inside), sits as close to the door as he can, in the sun, near the garden, listening to her voice, sensing our routine has returned to the usual. And he sleeps.

So He Loves the Bow that is Stable

In law school my housemate introduced me to Khalil Gibran’s, ‘The Prophet,’ and I keep returning to the prophet’s words. One passage troubled me the first time I read it:

“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.”

Watching my daughter grow in her early years, I was struck by how quickly she changed. The Caroline of one-week old was very different from the Caroline at birth. At one-month, six-months, a year, she was metamorphosing: caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly.

Her rapid changing leveled as she grew older, so her transformations were obvious to me only when I swiped my fingertips along photographs of her taken over the years.

But then, she began college, was away in Spain, spent a summer in New Hampshire, and I held in my mind’s eye the memories of who she was each of the last times I saw her, a still-life of a butterfly. She was, however, busy metamorphosing while she was away.

I would only realize this when I saw her, looking so different. And I thought once:

My daughter is not my daughter.

Gibran was kind to parents in his poem, knowing his words might hurt, so he also said:

“You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.”

I have always held that line dear.

And:

“The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that his arrows may go far and swift.”

On Wednesday, we picked up my daughter from camp. She drove while my wife slept. I was not with them. I was somewhere nearby driving the second car, wondering if she was ahead of me or behind me, knowing all along she was soaring towards the infinite.

Melissa Arnot: Mother Mountain

June 23, 2019. Early morning, high on Koma Kulshan’s Roman Wall, I am third on our rope team when we come to a stop. Several teams are behind us and begin to form a line. I look to my right down the 600 foot slope of the Wall. Alan, our guide, walking the point yells, “We’ve got to get off this wall!”

We stay perched. A thought jabs me: why am I here?

I see Alan talking on his radio. He is speaking with Melissa.

You know her.

Melissa Arnot. Six summits of Everest. One without supplemental oxygen. She never falls. Her crampons never catch her cuffs. The rangers call her to ask about trail conditions. Her headband is always in place.

She is our master guide.

Yesterday we stood at the trail head. Melissa gathered us around her and said,

“This is the goal.”

I looked around. We stood before the bathrooms. Earlier Melissa and Alan had given us small, blue bags that looked like the bags dog walkers carry. She explained there are no toilets on the mountain and we will carry out everything we brought in with us. I did the math.

But, by “this is our goal,” she meant our goal is to get back. As Ed Viesturs said, “Getting to the top is optional; getting down is mandatory.”

Last year I had climbed Rainier as part of Melissa’s Juniper Foundation fundraiser. I was, in my opinion, the weakest climber of the group, and when the lead guide on my rope team gave Steve (who would later summit Everest) the lead, I dreamed that one day I would hold the same honor.

But sitting in my tent at Camp Muir with a severe cold waiting for the guides to wake us for our summit bid, I had promised myself I would never climb a big mountain again.

So when I spoke with Melissa six months later and she invited me to join as a client her guided climb up Baker, I immediately said, “Yes.”

Baker, more properly called by its original name, Koma Kulshan (Great White Watcher), is part of the Cascade Range, an archipelago of stratovolcanoes in Washington state. Kulshan is still active, second to Mt. St. Helens, which blew up in 1980. At 10,781 feet, it is not as high as Rainier, but it is high enough for high altitude sickness to set in. And like Rainier, she is heavily glaciated, offering risks of avalanches and hidden crevasses. My great fear is corking, which can happen if you fall deep into a crevasse and get hopelessly wedged into the narrows.

I know how to get into shape for a big mountain (although actually doing that is another matter), and I know what to do when everything goes right, but I do not know what to do when anything goes wrong.

And so I am with Alan and Melissa. I trust them completely. They make the decisions about the risks unknown to me to preempt disasters. The day before our climb, Melissa had surveyed the route herself and discovered a crevasse so big the way was impassable, so she switched us to the north side of the mountain. Our path became the Railroad Grade (a razor’s edge populated by marmots) and then the summit by the Easton Glacier. She moved up our summit day because of an incoming storm.

As we climbed the Railroad, Melissa was in the lead, and I heard her say, “When I was in Kathmandu waiting to fly into Lukla…” and I wished I could speak a sentence like that too. As we climbed other guides recognized Melissa and said hello. Their clients swung their heads to glimpse the celebrity mountaineer.

I feel particularly honored to be hiking with Melissa. Not so much because of her accomplishments, but because of her worldview. Most mountaineers talk about what they climbed and how they climbed it, but Melissa is the rare one who talks about the “why” of climbing. George Mallory, when asked why he wanted to climb Everest, famously quipped, “Because it’s there,” but there is so much more reason why.

Rene Daumal, in his unfinished “Mt. Analogue,” wrote a passage that I return to often:

“You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When you can no longer see, one can at least still know.”

Melissa writes about mountains in the same way. She notes the simplicity of the mountains, which reduce our lives to what is necessary. She talks about asking questions and finding answers on her climbs. And then there is the sense of connection with others relying on one another to be successful and safe. She is a kind of mountaineer philosopher.

We set up base camp on the lower limb of the Easton Glacier, further up than some, but not as far as others. Alan showed us proper rest steps, French steps, and duck walking. He taught us how to arrest our falls with our ice axes and how to anchor and stop the fall of a teammate on our rope line. All of this so we would not tumble down the mountain the next day.

We had dinners of dehydrated foods. Mine had beans, a poor choice by me given the toilet rules. I saw Alan pull a grinder from his backpack and noticed Melissa was eating slices of pizza, which she confessed she had swiped from her friend’s refrigerator that morning. Melissa gave us tricks of her trade – “Stuff your down jacket pockets with the food you want to eat when we stop” and I thought this was especially ingenious as I put Snickers bars in my pockets.

“And now,” she said, “you need to go to bed. We will wake you sometime between midnight and 3:00 AM.”

This vagueness caused me some anxiety.

“And it’s OK if you don’t sleep. No one sleeps the night before a big climb.”

I asked if it was OK if I slept. She said that was fine.

The women chit chatted in their tent next to me. I heard Alan and Melissa laughing near their tent. I drifted. I dreamed. I heard snoring. It was me. And then I heard a voice like Melissa’s saying, “It’s time to get up.”

The sky was an infinity of stars. I traced the only constellation I know, The Big Dipper, and followed the line of the Milky Way. I watched a four star constellation moving up the mountain – a team already heading up, their headlamps visible from afar.

Melissa secured my harness and checked my crampons. I could not help but feel like a little boy whose mother was tying his shoes and zippering his coat. I looked at our team: helmets and headlamps, packs and ice picks, boots and spiky crampons. We had only what we needed, nothing more, function over form.

The moment just before summit day starts always brings a wind of anxiety over me. The same pattern of questions – am I strong enough, am I fit enough, are we going to fall off the mountain or into a crevasse – always hit me.

Slow and steady is the mountaineer‘s mantra. The first time I saw climbers, I laughed at their pace. But now, I understand and embrace it. We keep our heart rates low, keep our muscles free of lactic acid buildup, and stay strong for a climb that can last twenty hours.

We left base camp, slow and steady, not yet roped, Melissa in the lead. As we approached a ridge line of rock (called a cleaver because it cleaves a glacier in two) Melissa suddenly plummeted to her waist. I thought, a crevasse so soon?

There’s a pocket here,” she said, pulling herself free. “Step over it.”

On the other side we formed rope teams. The three women wanted to be on an all-female team, so the three male clients roped up with Alan. He is decades younger than me, but I take him as my big brother. Rope teammates begin to feel a bond and an annoyance with each other – we must walk at the same pace, keeping our rope taut so we don’t step on it and fray it with the spikes of our crampons. This seems easy for most, but seems impossible for me – I constantly overtake and lose the tautness of the line, or undertake and force the climber ahead of me to jerk me forward.

For hours we climbed in the dark, in the small headlamp lit circle of each of our worlds, and somewhere above was the way to Kushan’s summit, hiding herself in darkness. The path, slope, and crevasse risks were wholly unknown to me. Sometimes I heard Melissa’s voice checking in on Alan’s radio. I listened to the click and crunch of what Melissa has called “the language of crampons” (she’s a mountain poet too).

The women were stronger than the men. Our sister team marched at their slow and steady pace and we at ours until they vanished ahead of us in the blur of clouds and snow and other teams passed us or we passed them. I remained alone in my thoughts, focused on my steps, trying to be true in my placement, but routinely I caught my crampons on the cuffs of my pants and either ripped them or fell or both. This became my method. My team, my brothers, took my falling in stride.

And then we reached the Roman Wall, the face of the mountain. Best not to look, I thought. But I looked. It was too steep and too high and I just wanted to hear Alan say, “We’ve come far enough and we have nothing to prove and so let’s head back down.”

We kept climbing. Here was the place for rest steps and French steps and duck steps. I rehearsed in my mind the anchor move for when someone falls, knowing I really did not know how to do it. An hour of this until we came to a stop on 600 feet of drop and Alan says, “We have to get off this wall!”

This would be an especially bad time for the mountainvolcano to lose her temper and explode.

I don’t hear Melissa’s reply to Alan, but I am certain she is not discussing mountain philosophy or poetry with him. It’s simple. We need to get off this wall. Or we can tumble down 600 feet in a fifteen minute tailspin tangle.

And, we start walking, slow and steady.

The women are at the summit, victorious, joyful. I feel a swell of pride for them, knowing they did this as an all-female team, which was something deprived of them before. I sit. There is absolutely no view because of the snow and clouds, nothing to take in, nothing to do but rest and eat. I put on my down jacket and pull out a Snickers bar, which is frozen.

I see Alan and Melissa conferring. Alan approaches me.

“Are you OK with walking the point?”

“Yes.” I nod my head. “I am OK with walking point.”

And so I walk the point, glowing with pride.

“Do you see the trail?” asks Alan.

I see snow and haze and footprints and nothing. Somewhere ahead is the Roman Wall and a 600 foot plunge.

Yes,” I confirm. “I see the trail.”

I immediately walk us off the trail.

Alan tells me to go left. He has a GPS to guide our way. I am not walking the point in the true manner. More so I am a Alan’s toy car turning as he directs me on his control box. A little to the left. More to the left.

“Stop!”

I do.

“Hard left.”

Had I reached the edge of the abyss of the Roman Wall?

Eventually, the whiteout dissolves to clarity. I see the sky and what I believe to be the archipelago of the Cascades. Alan takes the point and walks us off the trial. I laugh to myself and feel humble and proud and joyous. I have used none of the blue bags. I have climbed, I have seen. My sisters, my brothers: we have not fallen off or deep into the mountain. We shall achieve Melissa‘s goal. I swear I will climb a big mountain again. I pose for a photo with Alan. Only later will I realize Melissa, the great mother mountain, has photobombed us in the back.

And I think, this is why, this is why, so much more than because it is there.

Christopher P. Kriesen, July, 2019

Zen Mountain Monastery

Advice from a Bat. Michael Young

Hunt only at night. Fly erratically.
Defy even your own expectations.
Feed on beetles, moths, and mosquitoes,
whatever is small and annoying.
Cultivate the myths about you
until every predator fears your legend.
When hunting, be guided by a language
only you can hear. The same is true
when courting the one you love.
Clean fangs and fur nightly. Crawl
or climb to confuse the observant.
Retreat to a cave no one believes in.
Let the day and the world pass
while you sleep, and sleep upside down,
ready to wake and fall into flight.

Saturday, June 29th, 4:50 AM, morning bows in the zendo hall. The Summer Solstice Sesshin.

A week ago I was at ten thousand feet, climbing along the Roman Wall of Mt. Baker as the sun rose. Now I am closer to sea level, sitting on a zafu cushion, bowing as people take their places. Most I do not know. Some I recognize. A few names I know.

The day slowly appears.

It’s the sixth day of a seven day zen retreat. I joined on the fourth day. Yesterday, after lunch, sitting outside, I watched two women watching the stone wall of the monastery. Two more women joined them. They sat in silence because the precepts are in place.

I looked too. A bat, the size of a matchbox, crawling among the stones, turning his tiny teddy bear head left and right as he tried to find his way. A baby, I am sure. Close to where he belonged, but not there yet. I had the sense that if he did not find his way, he would not survive the night.

Later we did kinhin, walking outside. I tried to be mindful, present in the moment, aware of nothing but my footsteps on the path, but my mind wandered. A storm of thoughts. Then I saw Tyko, a senior student, standing near the stone wall, his feet set apart, like a soldier standing guard, as the line walked by him. I looked down at his feet: there was the bat, on the ground, crawling in the grass.

I returned to my zafu, sat, and tried to clear my mind. It wandered. Shugen had spoken of climbing the mountain (toward enlightenment). Some see the mountain. A few reach the trailhead. Rare are the ones who make the climb. Here we are. And here I am, climbing a mountain again.

I doubt I will ever reach the summit. I am not enlightened. I am student here and I tell people I am last in my class. When someone corrects mistakes I make in the rituals (which is every time I am part of a ritual) I get upset, and this is because of my ego. I have miles to go before I reach no self. But the longer I sit, the better I count my breaths to ten, the more the scripts of who I am fade, and this is progress, my ego fading.

We hunt stillness by chanting in Japanese and in Pali (a language no one speaks any more). I do not know the meaning of the words I chant – meaning would be a kind of distraction.

In the mornings I work in a garden, on my knees in humid air in silence pulling weeds with others by my side doing the same. This is also zazen. This is also a metaphor. Once it began to rain and we kept working as though allowing the rain to fall upon us is part of our natural state, because it is.

In dokusan, I asked Hojin (my teacher) if she knew what happened to the bat. She looked at me confused.

“I found a small bat in the monastery,” she says. “I put him outside in the stonework.”

She helped set him on his journey, I thought to myself.

I returned to my zafu cushion and tried to still my mind. I opened my eyes and breathed in the people sitting near me. I wondered about their thoughts. I have heard people crying during meditation. Once a woman bawled. We just sat with her. In my mind I said, “This sadness is too much for you and I am taking in as much as I can to ease your burden.”

At the end of zazen that evening, I stayed in meditation a bit longer. I focused on the shuffle of people leaving, putting on their shoes, going upstairs and downstairs, and listened as attendants straightened cushions. I breathed in the last scent of the incense.

And then I walked back to the Jizo house in the darkness. Dozens of fireflies flashed in the field. I saw bats against the sky, snapping their wings, hunting moths.

I dropped into sleep. Sometime after 2:00 AM I woke to sounds of someone walking, then I dropped back into to sleep. At 4:15 AM, the man whom I asked to wake me woke me.

4:50 AM, morning bows in the zendo hall. The song birds are waking, but as the light grows stronger, their voices quiet, and as they grow silent, I still my mind. My thoughts turn to the bat. Has he survived?

On this last morning, we are allowed to speak, the same way Quakers speak when they sit together. Someone describes waking after 2:00 AM to sit early in the zendo hall. He says that as he walked along the field, he watched thousands of fireflies. He starts to cry as he describes it, the beauty. A woman talks about working in the garden with five others as the humid air turned to rain and she kept pulling weeds. Another describes the bat she watched in the stonework searching for his mother.

I breath in. I breath out. This is the extent of my practice. Here I am on retreat in a place no one out there understands. They would think me crazy if they knew. Upside down. But I am ready to wake and fall into flight.

And what became of the bat – I do not know.

Christopher P. Kriesen. July, 2019.

Multitudes

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After he reads his poems with his Irish accent, so that I don’t understand his words, and when I do, I don’t understand his meaning, his wife follows him to read to us her short story. Her name is Zadie Smith.

We are in a church. The pews are full. She switches from her English accent to an American accent and reads her first person story in the voice of God, who alludes to Whitman when He says He contains multitudes. She says after her reading that she did not know she would be reading in a church.

I buy two copies of the same book for her to sign, one for me and one for a friend who lives across the country but knows I am here and holds Zadie Smith dear. I don’t know what the book is about and the first story I know by Zadie Smith is the one she just read.

I wait in her signing line and soon she will say hello, sign her name twice for me, and move on to the next book. I am searching for a meaning in these events.

Here is what I find:

Whitman, in “Song of Myself,” said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself (I am large, I contain multitudes).”

He meant, I think, that he was so big he could not be defined.

The Irish man married to the English woman with Caribbean ancestry reading with an American accent a story in a church in God’s voice to me and one hundred others on a Spring evening at Wesleyan and who will write my friend’s name in her book.

The moment contains multitudes.

 

 

Notre Dame is Burning

In 1989 I lived in Paris. Notre Dame, which sits on an island in the city, was central to my life – it was the landmark I used to chart my path in the city; it was the view at night outside the library window of Shakespeare & Co. where I lived for several weeks that summer. A medieval icon that took 100 years to build and has stood for over 700 years.

One evening I was in the church as the music of Bach played on the organ. I sat on a stone ledge – all the seats were full. Others sat on the floor. We were in silence. Bach’s music, motets and oratorios, flowed to us and ascended. Notre Dame is place of worship, a place of gathering, a kind of home for everyone.

Outside and above, gargoyles keep watch over the city. The stories of the Last Judgment, Adam and Eve, and Michael’s measuring of souls are told by iconography on the exterior. The martyr Saint Denis holds his head and continues to preach.

On April 16th, Notre Dame burned. The spire collapsed. The wooden roofs turned to ash. The stone remains.

Now we await the resurrection.