This post is an adaptation of a talk I gave at the Santa Rosa Creek Zen Center on May 11, 2015.
There’s an old, well-known haiku by the poet Basho that goes like this:
Even in Kyoto—
hearing the cuckoo cry,
I long for Kyoto.
In koan practice with the Pacific Zen Institute, you are allowed and encouraged to use poems as koans, and to let the words of koans and poems transform in your mind, to show up and be real for you. So in my mind, Basho’s haiku became this:
Even on the mountain—
hearing the hawk cry,
I long for the mountain
And I let it stay that way, for a while.
For I do live on a mountain. I live in an intentional community in the Mayacamas Mountains of northern California. It’s a beautiful place: 400 collectively-owned acres, hiking trails out the back door, a huge community garden, friends and also in-laws close by.
I think this poem came to me because I really don’t know how long I will live on the mountain. This has been very real and poignant to me, lately.
For my mountain also takes a lot of work. 400 acres and 15 buildings collectively owned: that’s a lot of collective decision-making, a lot of meetings. And the way we live raises, for me, many questions around boundaries, time, and energy. For I am a mother, of a five-year-old and an eight-year-old, trying to grow into who I am and want to be as my children start to become more loose from me. I am not the person I was before I had children, when I was on a high-caliber academic track. I am not the person I was when I had babies, who allowed me to fall into the incessant lushness and fatigue of their complete dependence on me. Now I am a woman trying to discover who I am now that I am not the person I always thought I would be. Immersion in community, let’s just say, sometimes complicates that process of self-discovery.
The thing about this poem, or koan, though, is that it’s not the usual “grass is always greener” type of thing. It’s not about a longing to be somewhere else, somewhere better.
Rather, it expresses a longing to be right here, more fully here, where you already are. It expresses a longing for your relationship to place to be realized, to be located. The poem expresses an immediate kind of dislocation, a tenderness, a gap, right where you are.
It was hard even in writing this to stay with this less conventional, though probably more fundamental, kind of longing. I kept slipping into the other, more familiar story we tell ourselves about longing. So some of that slippage may still be in here. It is hard for me to tell sometimes what part of the longing is for somewhere or something else, and what part of the longing is to be more fully here.
I feel a true sadness that my relation to place, to this unbelievably gorgeous and fortuitous place where I dwell, is not unequivocal. That my feet are not as firmly on the ground as I’d like them, or thought them, to be. I seem to be carrying an echo, a hollowness, where I thought there was only fullness and presence. There’s that dislocation, tenderness, gap.
For a while, this fact of not knowing was really painful to me. I thought I must know, and make a decision about living here, now! Why are the questions so painful? I asked. What’s the deeper story? Amy—figure it out!
But since this poem/koan came to me, I feel okay. Pretty much happy. A day may come when I leave the mountain. But it’s not today, not right now.
No matter where we are, there is, or may be, longing. If and when I leave the mountain, there will be another longing, with another flavor, another cry, to keep me company.
I awoke from sleep one day this past week with these words in my head: Doing does not shut out the longing. So often we try to fix or paper over the longing with action, with planning. But the longing is always with us, and it’s luminous, beautiful. Where would art and soulfulness come from, if there was no longing?
I also dreamt about a book of poems that I have out of the library right now, Women Poets of Japan. There is one poet in the book, Akiko Yosano, whose life really resonated with me. She was a mother, a lover, an artist, and an activist. I dreamt I was looking for her poems in the book but couldn’t find them. The dream book itself was different from the waking one—the page numbers were different, and it was gorgeously engraved and filigreed, with different fonts and weights of paper for different sections of the book. But inside all this beauty I could not find what I was looking for. And there were people, shadowy people, in the dream, waiting for me, and I felt I could satisfy no one.
Then when I woke my daughter came and climbed into bed with me and somehow the feeling of the dream, the longing and the images and the dissatisfaction, did not go away but floated above us, like we were submerged together, with birds chirping and her chattering and her unbelievably long limbs warm against me, and those worries and thoughts were the light playing on the surface of the water overhead. When I wrote about this experience afterwards, the line that came up to meet me was one from a verse commentary on the vow of not stealing: “Just as they are, you and the things of the world are one…”
The mountain, the hawk, the longing—all one, all me.
Another thing that showed up for me while sitting with this koan was a memory of a television show, a British sitcom of all things, that I used to watch with my mother when I was probably a tween. It was called Butterflies, and it was about a housewife in her early 40s named Ria, with a working husband in his late 40s, and two teenage sons. But Ria also had a friend, named Leonard, who was a successful business man living a life really different from her own. They would meet and walk and talk in the park, and there was always this tender undercurrent of longing, of wondering, of feeling like—“Do it, Ria!”—but also “Well, she’s actually pretty much happy where she is.”
The story was not about unhappiness, and inaction. It was about happiness, and longing. That’s it.
I think this came back to me because my family is also my mountain. When I hear the hawk cry, it can feel like some part of myself that I think would be more wild and authentic and free if untethered from where I am, and I do feel longing. It’s real. But also, the hawk lives and hunts and thrives on the mountain. She flies and returns, and lives off its ground-dwelling and sky-dwelling creatures. The mountain makes her come alive. It is her. Like my family is me.
Also, when I hear my children arguing or talking back sometimes, it can feel like they are the hawk, harsh and distant and uncaring. I long for them to be my real children, the children I thought I would have. But then I catch myself, and at the best moments I laugh. These are the children I have. They are part of my unfolding.
Or sometimes, on a deeper blue note, I myself am the mountain, and they are the hawks outside myself, and I long to be restored to them, for them to be inside me again, physically linked to me again, inside the heavy mountain of how I felt when I was pregnant with them. But we separate. That’s just what we do.
When I was looking for images to go with this talk, I googled “hawk mountain,” and—of course! (when you are living with koans, there are many moments of “of course!”)—the very first images that appeared were of a place called Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania, where I grew up. This was one of the few wild places my parents frequently took us to. On the computer screen, I knew the mountain from the shapes of the rocks themselves before I even saw the caption. And I missed my first home, the low hills and autumn colors of the east, and I missed the mountain of my mother. We separate. That’s what we do.
How absurd, how human, how wild, and how beautiful—that we always feel this separation, this dislocation, inside our very own lives.
Here’s another interesting thing about sitting with this poem as a koan—I have not heard a single hawk since it came to me.
I want so badly for the world to mirror my life, but if I have an idea what this mirror should look like, then I may miss the dark mirror right in front of me. The hawk is the coffee grinding, my son playing with Legos, an ant crawling across the porch boards. And the longing is its own kind of bird. It belongs here, too, with the towhees and the quail and the bluebirds and the Stellar’s Jays.
Last weekend my daughter meditated for ten minutes outside with me, saying “I am trying to be so still and pure that the birds will land on me.” She got this idea from (and was trying to mirror) a character in a children’s book she is reading, but she also was trying to mirror me, because I have had birds land on me while meditating. But of course, when we want something so badly, and we just know what it is going to look like and be like—whether it’s longing to be good, or right, or in the right place, or awake, or in love—it probably won’t happen. But we can’t also just push that wanting away, telling ourselves, “Oh, the wanting won’t do you any good. Let it go! Just be happy. Just be!”
When I was starting to work with koans, my teacher gave me an exercise: Just notice what you want, without any expectation of getting. And what happened is that I was actually able to follow that wanting in a new way, and it woke up creativity. My specific longings became the first line of a story that I kind of impetuously sent out into the world, and that ended up winning a local writing prize. This after years and years of wanting desperately to “be a writer” and feeling frozen, because I thought I knew what being a writer looked like.
That was my first experience, really, of turning into the shadow, and letting it blossom.
So now when I hear the hawk cry, feel the mountain pull me, feel that longing rise up in me, I try to turn into it, not wish it away, or tell myself to relax, just be! I try to feel my way into how luminous the wanting is.
That’s what this poem, and this practice, are about, for me.
One last thing about turning towards and living inside a koan:
A few evenings before my talk I sat in between my children at bedtime and read them Shel Silverstein’s The Missing Piece Meets the Big O while they drew on their lap desks. My daughter copied pictures out of the book, and my son did his usual free-form, wildly dark and imaginative thing. First he drew a fancy race car, and then he started to draw mountains.
“This is Mt. Everest,” he said. “We’re so close to it we can’t see it. And this is the climber. He’s chained to the ground.”
This is the koan, coming alive in his life, and mine.
I kind of assumed there would be nothing so rich in what my daughter drew, because she is really different from her brother. She observes and absorbs everything but it it doesn’t show up for her in the creative way I usually expect it to. Mostly, she is a perennial and talented student of mimicry. But when I turned her way I saw that what she chose to copy was an elaborate, flashy sign, with arrows pointing down, saying “Here it is!”
So that’s it, too.