*Featured Artwork: from the “Us” Series by Ana Jovanovska
By Lauren Crux
I’ve been handling the other kinds of losing things pretty well––words, names of movies. I have less mobility than I would like, arthritis in the wrists and hip, etc. Then there are all the things that I call the “disappearing passions.”
First I lost my beach towel. No, not the beach towel, it was my swim goggles. I thought I had put them in my carryall bag, but when I looked they were not there. Then I remembered that I had taken them off and laid them by the side of the pool. And because no one ever steals anything at Tassajara Zen Center, I went back to the pool, confident that I would find them lying there, just as the year before someone had left their goggles by the pool and those goggles remained untouched in the exact same spot for the entire five days I was there.
But, my goggles were not by the side of the pool. When I inquired at the office, they told me that the man who tended the pool was gone for the day, but I should check with his assistant, who was “the tall monk with the bald head,” and hence, easy to spot. But I couldn’t find him. I tried again the next day and he was not there, but the monk who usually tends the pool was there — also a tall bald monk, the irony of which lent some levity to my situation. The pool monk said that no, he hadn’t found my goggles, and if he had, he would have left them where they were because the staff only picks up things from the pool once a month. Once a month? I hoped that we were at the end of this month’s cycle, but no, we were at the beginning. He then added kindly that it would be unlikely for anyone to steal at Tassajara. My thoughts exactly, except for the part of me that was agitated by the thought that someone had indeed stolen my goggles, sacred place or not.
I am “almost a Buddhist,” the kind that hangs out on the threshold and pays attention, tries to be mindful every day, and who also eats meat and is fond of irreverence. I am also a wanderer, rarely returning to the same place twice. But for over forty years I have returned to Tassajara every summer but one. The place sets me right; I think of it as my guerencia, a wonderful Spanish word that means, “the heart’s true home.” Every year, I am among the intrepid souls who are willing to hazard the last hour drive into Tassajara, down a steep, deeply rutted, treacherous dirt road with a few hundred foot drop off one side. This road has defeated many a car and driver — failed breaks, blown head-gaskets, cracked oil pans and wrecked nerves. The sense of “entering in” takes on layered meaning during this descent.
The well-being I experience at Tassajara begins the moment I arrive and park, sweaty, dusty, tired and wired from the drive down, from the accumulated emergencies of work and daily life. After unloading my luggage I head over dusty dirt parking lot to cross over the wooden Japanese welcoming bridge. The bridge is small, simple, arcing over a dry stream-bed; a formal and silent invitation to enter. It is magic for me, as if someone instantly turned up the volume of all my senses:
I inhale the musty smell of dry grass and scrub oak and feel my shoulders begin to drop and let go. Heat from the hot earth slowly seeps deep into my bones. A sonorous gong calls the guests to lunch — a simple feast of homemade breads, soup, salad — I notice I am hungry and I am happy. There are more sounds: the slow rhythmic beating of a drum that summons the monks to practice; the monotone chanting that is said to be able to penetrate both the visible and invisible worlds; the gentle murmurs, splashes and sputters of Tassajara Creek. And because there is always a mosquito in the meadow, there is the raucous jeering and screeching of blue jays in the vines near the kitchen; the quiet noise of the hungry guests as they stampede un-Zen-like for their favorite tables by the windows. I come for it all.
I can feel in the air the effects of years of the monks daily meditation and practice of respect and kindness to all life. And before the Buddhists, before the tourists, the native Americans who came here for the river, for prayer and for the land itself––a place of healing waters and deep spirit. But although I came with the intention to be respectful, to be kind in all things, to be deep in spirit, I was instead in a twist worrying that someone had stolen my goggles.
Last year I debated taking the goggles that someone else had left by the pool. I waited four days, which I thought was enough time for anyone to notice that their goggles were missing and to reclaim them. I had inadvertently left my goggles at home and naturally wanted to protect my eyes from the chlorine. I engaged in a little bargaining with myself–– perhaps I could just “borrow” the goggles. The lenses were a dark cobalt blue, a darker and more seductive color than my own goggles. The color enlivened me in a way that surprised and delighted. They fit my face well too.
Clearly I was making a case for theft. But at the end of my swim, I couldn’t do it. My Canadian, WASP, “proper home-training” was just too fierce. I placed the goggles exactly where they had been lying by the side of the pool, toweled off and walked away. Besides, you just don’t steal at a Zen Center.
When I was a kid living in Canada, about five years old I think, I walked out of a store where my mother had been shopping, with a double-holstered set of toy six-guns strapped around my waist. The guns were irresistible, and what’s a little cowboy to do but strap them on and go about her day. My mother, shocked, told me to turn right around and take the guns back and apologize.
In a fit of protest, I flung myself to the ground, raging, arms and legs thrashing –– a full-on tantrum. I understand the tantrum; I was a serious cowboy and those were properly serious guns. I also understand my mother was being a good mother by making me return the guns to the store. What I don’t understand is that she threw water on me to get me to stop my tantrum.
As this story was told over the years, the emphasis was always on how funny the whole thing was; how funny my tantrum. How my mother nipped that tantrum in the bud. “I wasn’t having any of that.” No one has ever questioned the throwing of water over a little broken-hearted kid to make her stop her raging. It was effective––I never threw another tantrum. I learned quickly not to be a bother. I learned also to seethe.
I know now that my mother didn’t handle pain or discord well. My sister told me that when our cat ate the pet bird my mother was so distressed that she grabbed a hot poker from the fire and burned the cat’s nose as punishment. I remember my mother rocking me and singing to me as a very young child. How I loved those songs, the smell of her, the grey and white striped rocker we sat in. To this day I have a rapport with rocking chairs. This is the only tender memory I have with my mother. She was not awful in any obvious ways. She took care of me. Cooked for me, made my clothes, saw that I learned to swim when I was three, which was unusual at that time. It’s the disconnections that haunt me: the disappointments I could not change that were devastating: I adored my mother; why don’t you adore me? You are not fun. When I was your age, 16, I was a star in Europe. What have you done with your life? Etc. And my part in all this? I am still trying to bring myself back on-line.
In general, I’ve never been able to steal. I’m the type who can’t steal a pack of gum without all the internal sirens going off, flashing red lights and cops with guns drawn. Yes, that dramatic. It keeps me in check. I have pocketed the occasional pen or pencil left behind in a coffee shop, and I do take magazines from doctor’s offices, and I think I took an abandoned t-shirt once. That all seems fairly harmless. Mostly, I consider myself a good girl.
I had a friend in college on the East coast who was a skilled shoplifter. He used to steal books all the time because he was poor and he, unlike me, was cool under pressure. One day when we were off-campus in town at a bookstore, he stole a book for me. A big hardback book, hard to steal, something about history, as I recall. He stole it expertly. I was impressed; my appetite whetted. At my instigation, we took a day trip to Dartmouth, a couple of hours away, just to look around and have a change of venue. There was a well-appointed lounge on campus, quiet, filled with Swedish-designed wood chairs and tables, and only a few students here and there. The chair seats were upholstered in a sapphire blue material that sparked irresistible desire. I went out to fetch the getaway car while my friend casually picked up a chair and walked out with it. Just like that. We put it in my car and off we sped. I kept that chair for years. I feel somewhat abashed reporting this, but not overly guilty, oddly enough; well, maybe only guilty about having had someone else do the stealing for me.
On day two at Tassajara, I found my goggles, but I lost my beach towel. The goggles it seemed, had been in my bag all along, hidden under a flap in the bottom. It struck me as odd that I had looked through my bag three times and emptied it twice completely, and still had not found those goggles. Maybe they really hadn’t been there all the time––just sort of reappeared––I think objects do this sometimes, you know, go traveling for a bit, and then return home. I was relieved that no one had stolen them. And embarrassed by the extreme agitation I had caused myself.
Now I had to find my towel. This ended up being a long, most-of-the-day obsessive search involving the bathhouse attendant, the office lost-and-found attendant, the front desk staff, the monk in charge of laundry, some back-and-forth to the pool and the bathhouse, the office again, until one lovely monk with a full head of hair told me that she had seen a towel draped over a chair in the small phone booth available to guests.
I ran––well, you don’t run at Tassajara––but I moved quickly to the phone booth, and indeed there was my towel, untouched where I had left it the night before when I called my girlfriend to tell her that I had arrived safely. I was relieved and distressed at the same time.
I’d love to tell you that after finding my towel I finally settled down and let go and proceeded to sink into what I call lizard time––deep resting, soaking in the healing waters, lying in the sun, walking up river to sit naked on a favorite boulder, hiking down river to the narrows to swim in the deep swimming hole. Lizard time, where every minute extends out in all directions into an exquisite sense of well-being. But no, later that same day, I lost my favorite and brand new T-shirt. It was so handsome––black with a sky-blue brush-stroke Zen circle on it. A simple, yet elegant design. I was attached. I lost my reading glasses even later that day––this was just too much losing of things. What the hell was going on? I don’t lose things so often at home. The occasional car key, my glasses or a file, which I always re-find. But this, this was something other. My sense of myself was dislodged and teetering.
Years ago I traveled for a week in Spain with a new friend who was in her 80’s. She was a walking disaster, dropping things, losing things, crashing her car, always something. She told me that her husband used to follow behind her at the end of the day and “collect her.” I was in serious need of being collected.
My mother died of Alzheimer’s disease. The full catastrophe. She became a turnip––blind, deaf, unable to speak. Her gorgeous dark, thick, red hair––stringy and white. Her once-beautiful and graceful dancer’s body––curled into a lumpish ball. Her hands clenched. She moaned and whimpered. But her strong healthy heart kept on beating––two, three, four years she lay in a vegetative state.
My mother kept things pretty much on the surface all her life. Feelings seemed problematic to her. I learned late in life of the importance of her two drinks a night, of the pills she relied on. Sometime in in my late 30’s, she in her late 70’s, when I was deep into the study of existentialism, she came for a brief visit. I asked her if she was afraid of dying. We were having a rare moment of what I call a “real” conversation. She said, No, she was not afraid of death, but she did not want to die slowly or to die losing her mind. How cruel that this was exactly how she did die: A prolonged ugly horrible death. I was not grief stricken; I didn’t love her enough for that. But I was horrified.
Eventually and mercifully, my mother’s heart did stop beating. My father and sister were relieved when the end finally came. The day I got the call, I took a single rose, a yellow rose, because I remembered that my mother liked that color in a rose, and I walked from my home all the way to the ocean, four miles away. I talked to my mother a little, thanked her for the good stuff, told her I was sorry about the bad stuff. Very early in my life I lost her. I wasn’t the daughter she wanted, and she was not the mother I needed.
Where the river flows into the ocean, I tossed the rose into the water with the outgoing surge and said my goodbyes to my mother. It was my only ritual.
Last year I heard on a radio show that Alzheimer’s disease is passed down through the mother. My reaction was, “Oh shit.” My father stayed alert and sharp until the end. I figured I had a fifty-fifty chance. This year some research suggests that contrary to what I have been thinking, there is no gene for Alzheimer’s and it may not really be passed on through the mother. OK, no one knows yet. I don’t do crossword puzzles, but I take all the supplements that are supposed to help, eat my greens, and hope for the best; in other words, breathe deeply, carry on and try not to lose things.
I’ve been handling the other kinds of losing things pretty well––words, names of movies. I have less mobility than I would like, arthritis in the wrists and hip, etc. Then there are all the things that I call the “disappearing passions.” I no longer bodysurf for hours at a time. I don’t bodysurf at all, one of my greatest passions, because I am just too banged up. A new knee, a funky other knee, a shoulder disintegrating, a bent finger. That month-long backpacking trip isn’t going to happen. My hand-made, custom designed, collector’s item Hetchin’s touring bicycle hangs in the basement. I go to bed earlier. Even lovemaking is diminished, due to hormonal shifts, a lover recovering from cancer, and the fact that everything hurts. All of this I more or less take in stride. There have been acceptable gains in wisdom.
When I start to forget things, when I start to misplace things, when I lose a favorite necklace I’ve had for years, I feel the tail of a dragon begin to twitch, feel the heat of its breath burning into me. This is not the Swimming Dragon of my QiGong practice, a practice that enlivens, strengthens, and heals the body and spirit. This is Other: fearsome, monstrous; its fire breath terrifies me.
I want to steal myself away.