I didn’t meditate in any sustained way until my mid-forties, and then only because everything in my life that didn’t have to do with my immediate family was falling apart.
I had a habit of going to work for businesses that went under or people who I realized, too late, were mentally unstable. A crazy woman rented our Atlanta house when we moved to North Carolina, and then bankers crashed the housing market, and that combination cost us $40,000.
I picked fights with friends for no reason. In 2004, I developed a weird and painful Shingles-like illness my doctor didn’t understand and in 2005, I ground my teeth in my sleep so badly I woke up crying.
I’d tried to deal with it all in my own way. I began to sit, in fits and starts, across years and moves with the family to one city after another. I’d sit alone, cross-legged on the couch, at six in the morning, every day. I’d have coffee and stare out the window at the Equitable Building in downtown Atlanta while we lived there. Or at the azaleas in our wide, flat Tallahassee yard when we lived there. I’d let my mind float wherever it would and work out whatever it wanted.
It helped me feel better, but it wasn’t really enough. My amateur attempts at meditation only scratched the surface. By 2012, I felt relatively calm, but still ground my teeth at night.
Then we moved to Vermont, and I started sitting weekly at an actual zendo near my house, in a room full of people I didn’t know, staring at the wall for hours at a time. We wore drab brown robes. Someone would ring a bell and we’d get up and walk around the room silently for ten minutes, staring at lights bouncing off the gleaming hardwood floors. Then we’d sit back down and chant in Japanese. It was rigid, ritualized. It was so weird that I kept envisioning my husband and daughters coming to find me, discovering me sitting there chanting monotone Japanese and plotting to have me committed.
* * *
One night a couple of years ago, when I was debuting as the zendo’s greenest, most clueless member, a handful of us stayed after meditation services to help out. Gabriel, the center’s guestmaster, and I were still in brown robes when we met near the front hallway and he asked me to change back into my street clothes and clean three of the center’s ten bathrooms.
But the bathrooms Gabriel wanted me to clean were all spotless. I sprayed the first bathroom countertop with diluted vinegar, feeling almost guilty as I wiped away dirt that wasn’t there. The second bathroom had a lone drop of tap water that had been left to dry in the sink, leaving a ghostly little white mark ready for me to shine away with my also very clean zendo-issued rag. The third bathroom had a single, lightly used hand towel on the countertop, waiting patiently to be spirited away.
In my arms were clean, folded green hand towels, but there was nowhere to put them. A small brown basket in front of me held a dozen more clean hand towels claiming the space where I was supposed to put mine. My towels were interlopers who would have to go back to the cleaning closet to wait for another day.
I thought of the ranch house I share with my husband and two teenaged daughters, where towels are used once and left to die on the floor. Our dogs like to steal garbage and pull it out into the living room, where they can enjoy eating it in front of the fireplace in a leisurely way. Granola bar wrappers and barely used, wadded-up paper towels lay on the kitchen countertops, as if the garbage can were not less than six feet away. As if the user would have been happy to pitch them out, but there was no time because a tornado was on the way and they had to flee with only the clothes on their backs.
There was still time left when I was done cleaning, so I went and found Gabriel again. I told him I needed more work to do, and he pointed me to the stores of tissue boxes in a nearby cabinet. I was to replace the tissues in any bathrooms in the whole building that were running low. But first, he said, I had to put sage-colored fabric covers on all the boxes.
I must have looked puzzled by that.
“We have to cover these up,” he said, pointing to an admittedly jarring maroon and orange tissue box with a geometric pattern popular in American master bathrooms in the ’70s. “It doesn’t do any good to go inward and be calm and then get distracted by things like that.”
The zendo sits in the middle of a huge green pasture by the river in rural Vermont, in an impossibly idyllic-feeling town in a state where every vista is straight out of a painting. Every inch of the building and grounds is a picture of muted colors and minimalist beauty. Everything is either sage or beige. A couple times during my new-member honeymoon I’d play a little game with myself where I’d turn around really quickly and try to catch someone in disarray, some mug of tea not put away in the kitchen, somebody’s robe on the floor outside the changing room, something, as though I was addicted to the startle impulse, the art of catching ugly in the act.
My little game reminded me of working at home in my attic office with Desi, our black lab. Desi prefers my daughters or husband to me when they’re home, but he attaches himself to me if we’re alone, regarding me in a resigned way, like a warden ordered to babysit the most ornery of the prisoners. Since he came to live with us in 2007, he has seemingly busied himself with coating every surface in the house with black hair. He loves to rub up against our maroon velvet couch in such a way as to leave a smelly vestige of himself that never goes away, as if the buckets of hair we sweep up constantly were not leaving enough of a mark on our lives.
Desi is just so touchy. We adopted him when we lived in the South, from a shelter where they warned us he would be put to death within weeks if we didn’t. If I was talking to someone and I raised my arm in exclamation and Desi was nearby, he cringed. He’d lie on the floor of my home office while I did my nearly non-existent freelance work and, if the garbage men came, or my phone rang, or a leaf settled silently on the windowsill, he went crazy barking, as if the whole house were under attack. He’d totally destroy my equilibrium every hour or so. Then he’d be barking and I’d be yelling, yelling and barking and yelling, and after a few minutes I’d finally settle back down to my work, fire off an email asking why I hadn’t been paid for my last editing job, even though it had been 90 days since my invoice, and want to kill someone.
Sometimes, to take the edge off, I’d walk into a room where Desi was resting peacefully and grab the wall and catch my breath and startle him. He’d spring to attack, look frightened, start to bark. I’d laugh. I was getting even with him.
* * *
When I first started formal Zen practice, I’d go to the zendo twice a week, sliding in my black socks over the gleaming wood floors. When we did walking meditations that led us out into the hallway, I would peer through the soft pastels of the prayer room to catch a glimpse of rolling green hills through a window I bet never saw a smudge since the building went up in the early 1990s.
That Zen picture-perfection wasn’t ever really on my radar until I was in my forties. I stumbled into it late in life after a childhood in 1970s South Florida that was almost completely devoid of religious practice. My brothers and I are half-German, half-Italian. I didn’t know any Buddhists, or even anyone of Asian descent, when I was growing up. My knowledge of the culture was limited to that old Calgon soap commercial that I saw about 600 times when I was kid, where the unsmiling white woman is picking up her shirts at the Chinese laundry, and she asks the proprietor, “How do you get shirts so clean, Mr. Lee?” He leans in close and whispers, “Ancient Chinese secret.”
That commercial broadcast a cleanliness that was foreign to me, sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of a big TV in the ’70s, surrounded by the tufts of dog hair given off by mother’s purebred Shih-Tsus. Or the mutts she picked up off the street because they looked lonely. We had cats who plotted against the peach-and-green lovebirds in wrought-iron cages on the balcony of our house and tropical fighting fish who carried out tank-sized turf wars. Mom kept the herd relatively normal-sized until my brothers and I went to college, then started replacing us at a ratio of two-to-one pets to people. I think she loved them because they didn’t judge her.
When I was thirteen, she approached me with the idea of paying me a weekly salary, fifteen dollars every Friday to clean up around the house. I loved the idea of the money and agreed immediately to keep the kitchen cleaned and the bathrooms sparkling.
But when I started to clean, my parents and my brothers stopped. I was on duty all day every day, walking unceasingly to from one end of the house to the other and stopping to scoop up handfuls of garbage and dirty laundry to take them to some other room. Nobody else picked up after themselves or anybody else anymore. Mounting piles of dog and cat hair were my responsibility now. Their flotsam and jetsam became my life’s work. By the time I finally escaped my mother’s house and left for college, I had totally had it with animals.
Yet somehow I still had animals–cats in every apartment, slinking off into the evening only to come back in the middle of the night and scream at me from underneath my bedroom window, dogs I bathed and combed and carted to the vet and kvetched at, like they were incorrigible roommates I couldn’t stand, but needed to keep around to help pay the rent. One dog, Margaret, I loved dearly but still treated with an impatience cops reserve for repeat drug offenders.
As I grew into adulthood, I started to look at my life, and the house I lived it in, as one big mess to clean, the people in it mess-makers I was duty-bound to manage. The constant housekeeping chores seemed to morph into an endless worry that made everyone around me uncomfortable and spiraled, over the years, into outright anger.
It was anger that I learned to couch as something else and put a calm face on, but it was anger all the same. I kept reading articles about how I could use meditation to get hold of my anger, but my tentative reading of Buddhist philosophy didn’t really bear this idea out. The only depictions of Japanese Zen masters or Buddhist monks I saw made them seem like humorless hyperintellectuals given to telling long, intense allegories. Allegories that usually involved animals.
There are hundreds of them. The apocryphal Zen story surrounds a man who finds the hoof prints of an ox in the woods. He finds the ox and eventually tames him. Then he gains mastery over the ox, and rides him into the center of town. The ox is a symbol of his own mind. Or something.
Or there’s the story of the man riding the horse, galloping fast, looking like he’s going somewhere important. Another man on another horse rides up to him and asks him where he’s going so fast.
“I don’t know!” the guy says. “Ask the horse!”
I am done asking animals questions, I thought. I did not want to ask the horse anything.
* * *
Slowly, though, something started to happen, there on the cushion at the zendo, in the middle of formal practice, that never happened to me while at home, alone, on the couch. There was nothing to look at. No building, no lawn, no azaleas. There was just the wall, and the reflection the wall provides to the inside of your own mind. They told us not to move until the bell rang. There was nothing to say or do or prove or clean up. We were to breathe in and breathe out, counting slowly to ten. We were to do nothing.
Nothing and everything. There, played out in little TV-like snippets, was every time I snapped at someone I liked. Every time one of my daughters asked a question I had no answer for, every time one of them did something beautiful that made me cry. Every joke I told that fell flat. Every awful thing my mother ever said to me when she was drinking. Every time I was mean to Desi. Every missed paycheck. The day Margaret died.
Those are some of the big things. There are small ones too. A flash of anger at my husband’s tendency to leave empty sparkling water cans on the coffee table for three days, or my youngest daughter’s hoarding the family’s cutlery in her bedroom. A spark of loathing at an email from a colleague asking for a meeting in which I know he will waste my time by talking about how awesome he is for an hour. They floated up out of the back corners of my mind and plopped right down in front of my awareness, like a wet towel dropped to the floor.
But the part of my brain that usually chimes in to tell me it’s my job to clean all that up was increasingly silent. If I didn’t grab hold of those ideas and coat them in my own special brand of Kim-flavored effrontery, they had a habit of just floating away, to be replaced with nothing.
The more I invited the idea of nothingness into my mind, the more I realized that it left a growing space for peace. The more I sat in the zendo, the more I realized that calm, comforting idea of nothing, that acceptance, often stayed with me as I left, got into my junky Nissan Sentra that still smells like whatever its previous owner used to smoke, and made my way home. It was still with me when I walked through my kitchen door and saw my daughters’ bowls of unfinished cereal still on the counter after two days.
The more time I spent on the cushion at the zendo, the more I realized that people’s tense work emails, my dogs’ barking like the world’s about to end and my husband’s constantly leaving his shoes directly in my path actually has little to do with me. The more I cleaned the spotless bathrooms at the zendo, the more at ease I felt with the anger that threatens to boil up in me when I clean the bathrooms at home. Sustained meditation helped me to be able to greet those feelings, spend a moment with them, thank them for their time and then flush them away.
The tissue-box covers at the zendo are actually for retreats–week-long periods of intense silent meditation called sesshin, where you wear a brown robe every day and literally eat, sleep and breathe meditation. If you pass someone in the hallway during sesshin, you don’t greet them and you don’t look them in the eye. You pass silently by and allow them to maintain their inner silence. All the windows and bookshelves are covered up with beige curtains. You go so far inside yourself that the sight of an uncovered maroon-and-orange box of tissues might actually set you off.
When instead, you see that calming, sage-green box of tissues, it too provides the reflection of your mind. Because by then your mind is everywhere. It is everything and nothing. Zen retreats are a quarantine in the house of your own consciousness, dedicating to preserving and growing that peaceful space until it makes up your whole body, then the space the size of the building, and then the known world, and then the universe.
That summer, when I first became a zendo member and was immediately sent to clean the bathrooms, I thought for a while that I’d eventually graduate to some other, slightly more lofty chore, like sweeping the floor or washing the dishes or cooking. But no. Gabriel sent me to clean the bathrooms time and time again, to endlessly run my rags over spotless countertops, to wipe with vinegar mirrors so clean they look like they never saw a human face. One time somebody actually tracked in a little mud from the garden, and I wiped it up with my rag. I felt like I’d just won a hundred dollars.
Two years in, I realized: He’s always going to ask me to clean the bathrooms, and they’ll always already be clean. Because that’s my work. Because that, in itself, is the practice. The bathroom, shall we say, is the ox. Or the horse. One of those.
At home, we clean the bathrooms only when we can no longer safely avoid it, and we do not have tissue box covers. The walls are still the same garish colors left by the previous owner, the same blood red and robin’s egg blue I promised I’d paint before I ever moved in. I think I am the only one physically capable of closing our kitchen cabinets. My eye will eventually fall on the velvet couch, the one with the thin veneer of black dog hair, that Desi has mostly destroyed by jumping on it and going insane anytime anybody walks by our house.
He’s older now, with white grizzly hairs at his chin. He spends a lot of time on the dog bed we finally got him. I don’t often pet him because he usually needs a bath, but I don’t try to freak him out anymore. These days, when the mail lady comes by and leaves him a dog biscuit while he bares his fangs and envisions eating her on the other side of the front door, I can usually manage to just sit there on the couch with my back to both of them and calmly continue to pretend to read. These days, I know how to be nice.
Kim MacQueen is the author of two novels, Out Out and People Who Hate America. She teaches magazine publishing at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont, and has recently completed the MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Bay Path University. Come and visit on kimmacqueen.com.