The Twenty-Year Sweater

I’ve been knitting a sweater for the last twenty years. It’s true, I am a really slow knitter but I’m not that slow. Well, I am. I have quite a few “one socks” without the other—I knit one, it takes me forever, I never get around to knitting the other one. But this sweater is something that I am going to finish—I have one sleeve to go. I am determined.

This sweater has a story (you would hope, right?) It begins with a dream to own a farm, which I did make true in my twenties and thirties. The farm had chickens and horses, but it needed a few sheep. So one spring morning, I drove my VW Rabbit diesel to another farm that raised sheep for hand spinning and bought two lambs—one white, one black. I stuck them in the backseat with some hay. Then I drove the two hours back to my farm, the lambs looking out the window, having never been in a car before. When I got home I put them in the pasture I had prepared. It was a lovely space bordered by a stone wall.

Then next morning Dolly and Miranda (that’s what I named them) were gone. They had climbed over the wall and disappeared. I searched the woods, I met a neighbor who had a flock of sheep and said he would keep an eye out for them; I gave up hope by the end of the day. They were coyote food. I went to bed depressed. The next morning I got up at the dim early light of pre-dawn and went to let the chickens out. And who should appear, emerging from the woods across the road? Dolly and Miranda.

“We’re back,” they seemed to say. “Nothing much out there.”

When Dolly was a year old, I sheared her and it was from this first fleece—a rich dark brown—that I spun the wool to make the sweater.  Dolly didn’t like being sheared—as a matter of fact for a sheep, Dolly had some strong opinions. But we both persevered, in our stubborn ways. I got the fleece, and she got kicks in.

I want to justify taking so much time to knit a sweater and this is how I’m going to do it: I’m going to believe that this sweater is more than a bunch of loops in dark brown. It’s about dreaming a dream and staying stubborn in the belief that living your life the way it matters to you counts–whether you’re a human or a really stubborn sheep.

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What Makes a Good Life?

When I was growing up, my father at dinner would ask us—each of the five kids in turn, going around the table—what did we do to improve the world today? And I remember feeling squirm-ily inadequate. Even though he always praised us for our paltry attempts to improve the world—“I babysat for Mrs. So-and-so,” “That’s helping!”—I held myself to a higher standard. Apparently his innocent question resonated with something deeper inside of me. And I thought everyone wrestled with this question.

I remember asking a boyfriend when I was in high school if he wondered what it was all for—an off-the-cuff question for me because of course everyone puzzled over this. I was shocked when he not only said “no”, but further said that if he ever did think about it he would probably just tie a rock around his neck and throw himself into a lake. Huh? It’s your duty to worry about the meaning of your life. I mean you can’t just live it, can you? As I get older, I realize that most people pretty much just live it and try to enjoy doing so, as far as I can see.

So is life a gift to be enjoyed, or a responsibility to be lived up to? What makes a good life?

Me, I lean toward the responsibility end of the spectrum, but every now and then I get moments of just living it and I must say, it feels like playing hooky—no wondering if you’re doing it right—no wondering if you’re living up to whatever you’ve been put on this earth to do…It’s a great and freeing feeling, but I also know that it is only, for me, the responsibility that gives the gift its value.

So I think what makes a good life is becoming a person you want to be with—realizing that you’re fine just the way you are.

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The Zen Master and the Type A

As I sit in front of the wood stove on this stormy-snowy morning in March, I hope that this will be the last of the snow. There is still a foot of it on the ground and I can’t even see my gardens, much less plant things. I have started some flower seedlings indoors and they are up and tenaciously growing—little inch-high things under lights in the dining room. Normally I start seedlings in the living room where the southwest windows bring in tons of light. Normally. But this spring has been unusually gray, not much sun at all, so for the first time in five years, the seedlings are under the grow lights.

But even as our climate, our planet, our home, is becoming more unpredictable; I am reminded of something Bernie Glassman said. Bernie is one of the authors of The Dude and the Zen Master—he being the Zen master part and Jeff Bridges being the dude. I bring this up because it is this iteration of him that people may be familiar with. But I met Bernie way back, in the 1980’s, when I was an ardent student of Zen and he was my teacher’s teacher. I used to, back then, go on zazenkai’s (day-long meditations) at the zendo in Long Island. And during one of these zazenkai’s, Bernie sat across from me. That day, as I sometimes used to do, I cast my mind out, seeing what I could pick up—was he fidgeting? Ego-bound? Thinking about dinner? I prided myself on being able to read energy somewhat (which is, looking back on it, quite obnoxious, since it’s all about power and control).

But at any rate, my point is, from Bernie, I could read nothing. Nothing. It was as if he was not even there. And that meant, of course, that he was the real deal. Because if you have fully realized, you walk in step with the world, not pushing through it. You are one with it.

That day, Bernie said something that has stayed with me all these years. He said, “We try to improve a little, but we are who we are.”

Well that struck me like a big, warm hug. I was comforted and freed and validated all at once. Because if there’s one thing I’m always insecure about, it’s that I’m not good enough.

 “We try to improve a little, but we are who we are.”

 There is a place to rest inside those words.

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Do You Know Who You Are If No One Knows Who You Are?

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I am in New Mexico right now and went hiking at Ghost Ranch yesterday. I got to talking with a lovely young woman who works and lives there and she told me how the solitude at the ranch–so longed for in her life–was almost overwhelming in the winter months. Having no distractions forces you to face yourself.  Our conversation reminded me of this earlier post I wrote and so I’m re-posting it here (with a new image–a watercolor I did en plein air at Ghost Ranch.) Hope you like it.

What is your role at this time in your life? Can you state it, in one sentence? When an editor looks at a manuscript and can’t quite make up her mind about it, she asks the author: “what is at the core of the story?” If the author doesn’t know or can’t relate it succinctly, then that is the basic problem with the story. It’s the same with our lives. If we can’t tell ourselves, in one sentence, what our role is, how do we know what our story is?

Knowing our role is the center of our actions. If we know our role, our actions naturally and easily extend outward from that knowledge. If we don’t know, our actions seem erratic and confusing, to us and to everyone else.

You find your role by self-reflection.  It’s an activity that involves no one but you. It’s just you and you—non-twittered, non-face booked, non-social media-ed.  The only way to get to know yourself is to meet yourself and you can’t do that if you are constantly reacting to someone else’s idea of who you are.

Do you exist if no one tags you? Do you count if you don’t post? Who are you, essentially? Take away all your labels: friend, parent, lover, child. Take away your media: face book, twitter, tumblr, etc. Drop all these like a cheap suit. Now stand there naked. Who are you? When you can answer that, it’s time to get dressed again.

Not knowing is scary; I’ve been there. It’s a dark place with no stable ground. But if you can do the hard work of facing yourself, answering your own questions, not letting others tell you who you are, you will find your stable ground and it will be always stable, since you have found it for yourself.