I had lunch with a friend the other day whom I had not seen since June. This may not seem like a long time, but in the early 1990s Renate and I sat next to each other Monday to Friday from 9 am to 5 pm. We also ate lunch together every day, and on some Friday nights we would also have dinner. For two years eighteen years ago I saw Renate more than I see my own husband now.

We had about an hour before she had to go to work. In these situations, trying to catch up on months of living in one hour, I often fall back into a default position in which I don’t say much at all about life for me. It would be too much to describe even if we had seven hours together and not just one. In the end, it seemed equally short for Renate, who said, as she was walking to her car later, “I didn’t even tell you half of what I wanted.”

Neither did I.

Time is an illusion. Meaning, a life can change completely in one second or it could not change at all in 80 years. So, what could I tell Renate about my life in the last 7 months? I could say I live lifetimes in a day. And perhaps I could describe the quality of each lifetime. Or, I could just sit and listen and have her tell me about the lifetimes she is living in one day.

I recently attended my first day-long buddhist retreat at the temple. From 3:00 PM to 10:00 PM I sat in meditation with others in the Retreat Center of the temple. We sat in silence in various positions in shifts of 30 minutes each with fifteen minute breaks. These cycles were interspersed with chanting and walking meditation. It is impossible to say what happens in a day like this, just as it seemed impossible to say to Renate what happens in seven months of my life when each day is a lifetime. Even in the days since the retreat, it is hard to say what happened and how it worked (or did not) for me. Nothing happened. And yet, everything is different.

In order to feel less isolated in this experience, I began reading Japanese Zen poets in a book which Brian gave me for Valentine’s Day. My favorite poet is Ikkyu Sojun (1394-1481) and it was one of his poems that came to me most during the retreat.

Six years of piercing cold and hunger!

Shakyamuni’s way demands austerity.

Anyone who thinks buddhahood is easy

is just a rice bag in a monk’s robe.

I like Sojun because he’s cranky and honest. Buddhahood can be be bitch.

I have always liked haiku for its simplicity, but now I understand better why nature and its small elements are so engaging to haiku poets. When one sits still for hours at a time, the world dissolves and condenses until one notices only the frog or the fly or the drop of dew:

Settling, white dew

does not discriminate

each drop its home.

(Soin 1604-1692)

As I sat across from Renate with a plate of eggs and toast and listened as she asked me questions about myself and Brian, this other haiku appeared in my head in place of words.

If pressed to compare

this brief life, I might declare:

It’s like the boat

that crossed this morning’s harbor,

leaving no mark on the world.

(The Priest Mansei, ca. 730)

Haiku has been pacing back and forth across my brain like monks who wander silently back and forth through the temple. In this odd too-real dream state, I have often lost the words to describe what I see or feel now. My own thoughts have been gathering themselves in groups of short lines as if to show me how simple it really could be if I would stop over thinking it.

For the first time in years, I wrote a haiku. Three lines that came to me as I left the temple — less ecological and more decidedly modern than the ancient monks I read, but it seemed at the time (and now) everything I wanted to say about my day at the temple (and after).

Climbing the temple stairs

the sound of velcro

in my knees.

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