Just One Thing?

I'm supposedly listening to an album. The Cars' first album. Friends and I were talking about it last night and then I was going through my records and saw it there. It belongs to another guy who doesn't have his turntable any more but kept his albums. Turns out that The Cars' first album is good. It's from a whole range of music I discounted in my youth because I wanted to seem superior to pop. I'm a bit less foolish now.

But this isn't about The Cars, it's about listening to an album, the thing I'm supposedly doing. I listened to the first and a half but a book on my shelf — The Art Of Noticing by Rob Walker — caught my eye and I picked it up. I had read eight pages before I remembered listening to the album. The record was still spinning, music still played from the speakers, but was I listening?

I put the book down, intent on listening, but kept thinking how this was something I wanted to write. I booted the computer into the writing program and typed until the record ran out, then got up, flipped it, and wrote while the music played.

There are two old Zen things I have just wasted two songs trying in vain to find. The first, I'm pretty sure is a Zen saying, but the second is something else entirely.

The First: When drinking tea, one should only drink tea.

Focus on one thing. Be in the moment. Meditate on it. Really listen to The Cars first album instead of reading or writing. I've failed at this, but there's this second thing.

The Second: A monk watched his master drinking tea and reading the newspaper. Master, he asked, you said when drinking tea, one should only drink tea? The master paused, then said, when one is drinking tea, one should only drink tea. And when one drinks tea while reading the newspaper, one should do only those things. With that, the master went back to reading the paper, steam rising from his cup and disappearing mysteriously in the morning air.

I'm going back to listening to The Cars now.

Unpleasant Guests, Limited Wisdom

A friend called yesterday. She's a teacher and struggling. Can't find a new job. Doesn't know how to make ends meet. Her friend is in trouble. It's a lot to handle. She called to hear something good from me. I hope I gave her something. Even if I did, I sent her a version of this today because it seemed on the nose.

What do you do when you find unpleasant guests are knocking at the door of home? Some thinly disguised versions of greed, hatred, or ignorance. Of course, the guests are usually better presented than this scruffy bunch sounds, because the self does a fair bit of work to make them more presentable to itself.

Practice says a strange thing: So that you can let them go, make mindful room for them. Welcome them in as the brief guests passing through that they really are, not the long stay tyrants we can easily turn them into. Find out who they are really, so you can know more skillfully how to let them go. The Way is not about drowning in bliss but establishing freedom in every mood, condition, emotion, and belief. And so it has to be about knowing, moment by moment, our actual condition upside-down and inside-out, with an alert, curious, willing attentiveness. Sitting patiently and ungrudgingly with the way things actually are. — Susan Murphy, Upside-Down Zen, qtd in Daily Doses Of Wisdom, page 164

I told her she certainly does have unpleasant guests knocking at her door. They aren't greed, hatred, or ignorance, more like frustration, anxiety, and fear. Unpleasant characters indeed. They present as matters of fact, unavoidable, the natural order. We've been taught that there's no other way to think of them. That's why people tell us to suck it up and deal. We're told, the world simply is this way; quit your whining.

There's some wisdom in that. We do well to accept the world as it is, but I'm not describing an awful place or situation. There is plenty that sucks about this life, but there's more than plenty wonder in it and the world is more interesting than all bad or all good.

Have you ever had to listen to someone who believes bad things come in threes? Two things happen and they cast about for magic number three. There it is! they cry. Of course it's there when they go looking for it. This morning the toilet paper roll was empty and I forgot to have breakfast. Where's my third bad thing? I can go looking for it or not. My choice. The third thing is out there (so too are the fourth, fifth, sixth), but there's this good writing, my wondrous wife in the next room, and my friend to whom I first wrote all this. We find what we're looking for, bad and good, and these things come more than three at a time.

My friend is having some awful times. Bad things are at her door. She should welcome them and offer them food, a place to sit. Be polite, I told her. Be compassionate toward them. But don't indulge them. Don't let them move in and take up all your time and space. They can visit for a few, but then send them on their way. Accept them in order to let them go. Accept the way things are without falling for the con that they will stay this way forever.

That's the limit of my wisdom. Feeling that it's not quite enough, here is the sheer grace of Derek Walcott's most gorgeous of poems:

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.


There are no glamorous dishwashers. The dishwasher is the kid on the lowest wrung, the bum who can get no other job, or someone down on their luck. No one aspires to dish washing.

And yet I'm kind of savoring the job.

Last week, our dishwasher read E:25 which translates as "your dishwasher's broken." Helpful. I bailed the water and probed for blocks. I ran it again. The pump started. The pump stopped. Started. Stopped. Water came through the tube. Then E:25.

The repair guy fit us in last Friday. He's cool. I like talking to him. I like that he takes his shoes off even though I tell him not to bother. I like how he makes friends with our nervous dog. He showed me how to free the impeller. Packing up, he warned that the pump might go, but if it did, he wouldn't charge for another service call.

Good thing too, because the next morning, E:25

He replaced the pump this Friday. I came down this morning. E:25.

The tough part is expecting the dishwasher to work. It's Charlie Brown trying to kick the football. Washing all those dishes by hand is a job, but I don't mind a broken dishwasher once I get over the surprise.

Here's a Zen dish washing story:

A monk told Joshu, “I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.” Joshu asked, “Have you eaten your porridge?" The monk had. Joshu said, “Then you had better wash your bowl.” At that moment the monk was enlightened.

Knowing I'm at E:25, I wash my plate or cup soon as I'm through eating. Am I enlightened? I don't know. But the soap on my hands, the water running through my fingertips, these things feel good.

Who needs a dishwasher?

My daughters and wife do.

I've called the guy. We will talk again while, shoeless as a monk, he dives in and we wait on enlightenment.