Life and death. Past and future. Can this guilt-burdened, grieving sister believe they're all the same?
Illustration by Aleks Sennwald
"Just Now" is the grand-prize winner of the 2009 Memphis Magazine Fiction Contest. Its author, Ellen Morris Prewitt, has had stories nominated for the Pushcart Prize, including one that received Special Mention in 2007; she has won other awards, including the Tennessee Writers Alliance Fiction Contest. Honorable Mention winners in our 2009 contest are Anya Groner and Betsy Taylor, whose stories will be published in February 2010. Congratulations to all three writers. We thank the magazine's cosponsors — Burke's Book Store and Davis-Kidd Booksellers — for their ongoing support of this contest.
Now the Teacher stands at the foot of the wooden stage and introduces himself. He's wearing a black robe over black pants and a black shirt. He tells us, among other things, that he owns a pet shih tzu and he's a Catholic priest. He's also a famous Zen master, totally into Buddhist teachings. My friend, Buddy, got him here from south Louisiana by organizing a petition drive on yellow legal paper, which he folded and stuffed into an envelope and mailed to a small Louisiana town as evidence of our enthusiasm. The Elks charged us $50 each to attend, for which we receive dinner, overnight stay in bunk beds, breakfast, and all the sitting you can stand. Oh, and BYOC: Bring your own cushion.
After all his work, Buddy didn't show because he caught the flu. No one else from class came, either. I knew Buddy from my time at a community college where I took Zen 101 as my gym class. Zen Gym 101. We were pretty good. One time the police tromped into the zendo — with their shoes on — and hauled away a guy who, it turned out, had been writing threatening letters to the teacher. "Come with us," the big cop directed, hefting the boy by the arm, and none of the rest of us budged from our cushions. But then someone told the State Board it was heresy to teach Zen so that was the end of Zen Gym 101. It was bad timing for me. I could have used the group sitting, but the State Board didn't know that.
The Teacher gives us a few pointers — a very few — while gently smoothing the front of his robe. "Empty your mind of thought. Be aware. Sit as still as Mount . . . Something." The overhead light catches the lens of his wire-rim glasses, blanking his eyes.
I have placed my faith, and my precious fifty dollars, in this man who, you can tell, is a crazy monk kept sane by Zen. Without the practice, he'd probably be flapping his robe and squawking like a chicken. He keeps instructing us to "be where you are." "Pay attention to form," he says and, "notice the way you enter and exit the zen-do." What I'm noticing is the hairy buffalo head nailed to the wall. The buffalo is wearing a red plastic cowboy hat, much too small for him. The hat has a drawstring with a little white knob on the end to adjust the strap, but the hat is never going to fit that big ol' head. "There is no coming or going," the Teacher intones. "No life or death," he chants, and I wonder what the buffalo would have to say about that.
We're seated on the floor in the middle of the room, gracing our Teacher with the rapt attention of little children during story time. An elderly man wearing a Coleman Lantern T-shirt blinks his eyes, as if fighting back tears. I focus on the chairs shoved against the wall and stacked one on top of another in a chairs-having-sex kind of way. As soon as we vacate the premises, the Elks in their fezzes will emerge from their hiding places and unstack the naughty chairs, arranging them into proper rows again, eager to erase any evidence of our having been here, in their Elks Lodge, sitting Zen.
The Teacher lights a candle. He places the candle on the edge of the stage. He bows to the candle.
The dude in front of me keeps rearranging his butt on a low, wooden stool that reminds me of a game my older sister loved when we were kids —the one with the pegs and hammer. The wooden stool is two sizes too small for the man's butt. I understand that my sesshin retreat will be of no help if I focus on the man's oversized butt lapping the edges of the stool, so I lift my gaze, only to discover that the man has a mole behind his ear. I hate the sneaky mole, hiding behind his ear like that. Sliding my cushion sidewise, I line up with the stage. It's lovely, with blond wood, nicked and scarred but holding its own. The candle burns bright — casting shadows across the wood.
The Teacher dings the bell. We assume the position: Legs crossed, hands on the knees, elbows cocked, ready to set sail.
The retreat is silent.
Who knows who these people are or what has brought them to sesshin?
"No coming, no going. Just now."
An ungraspable now. "Nownownownownownow."
Except if you get off rhythm it could be, "own, own own."
Or, "wno, wno, wno." Which seems to express the ungraspable nature of now, so I use it: "Wno, wno, wno."
"Wno, wno, wno, wno."
The bell dings.
Time is up, and I never got past the wno.
Before each sitting we receive teisho from the Teacher. During this time of group instruction, the Teacher talks with a forced hesitancy. He'll get going and suddenly stop himself. You can almost hear his brain shouting, "You're lecturing! Slow down! Be Zen!"
Then he begins to talk about Zen and Christianity. But when he says "Christianity," he seems to mean Catholicism, using phrases like "Holy Eucharist" and "the living waters of Baptism," which show he doesn't know he's landed in the middle of Southern Baptist country. Catholicism might be a bigger obstacle to sitting Zen in North Mississippi than Buddhism. Folks have heard enough about Catholicism to know they're supposed to be worried. Buddhism, for most of us, is a cloudless sky.
We sit zazen for another twenty-five minutes while my thoughts leap from dry deserts to broken cemetery angels to our childhood dinner table where my older sister lectured us on good manners: "Wipe your mouth with the tip of your napkin, like this. When you're finished, fold your hands in your lap, like this. Always ask, 'May I be excused, please?'"
"Kinhin outside!" the Teacher yelps, and we gather in a clump while he throws open the door. A fresh breeze trips through the hallway, ruffling the blousy legs of the Teacher's pants. Lined up, hands clasped against the chest, deliberately processing, we move forward.
Dude Who Sniffles slaps his feet on the parking lot asphalt. He's the type of man who surrounds himself with cushions, one for his back, two for the knees. Barricading himself in, protecting his space against the intruding world, warding off the unexpected slices of fate.
I try to corral my uncorralable thoughts. I came here for a reason . . . Will you let it in?
We march past the archery range. "What is this 'we,' Kemosabe?" my brain asks my mind, which resides with my body not in Hernando but thirty miles away in the mobile home I bought when I had to be near my parents' one-story ranch. Returning next to, but not inside, my childhood home in the rural fields outside the little town of Coldwater. Dragging my sorrow and my trailer behind me like a woebegone hobo, no place to call my own, drifting without any moorings, believing I could tether to the brick ranch, and bob. Two bedroom, one bath, carpeted bonus room. The house where my sister grew up more quickly than I did, hogging the bathroom, yelling at me for using her hair brush, but teaching me to paint my fingernails bright pink so my hands flashed like hers.
Because there are so few of us, we each get Daisan with the Teacher after every walking Kinhin. One by one we leave the zendo, conduct our face-to-face spiritual interview with the Teacher, return to our sitting. I am last in line. After a time, Mr. Mole Behind the Ear returns to his stool, which is my cue. I stand and exit. No one says a word.
The Teacher and I sit in a cubbyhole of a room, him behind a metal desk, me on a folding chair. While we're in the room, the silence rule for the sesshin is lifted.
"What has brought you to sesshin?" the Teacher asks.
"Attachment," I say.
"Hmmm," he offers, like a psychiatrist who lets you talk about whatever you want, getting your own self in trouble.
My mind casts around and lands on his pet shih tzu. "My dog. I'm attached to my dog. I want her with me all the time, go where I go, that biblical Ruth 'I will follow' kind of thing, which they always read at weddings even though it is a woman talking to her mother-in-law. Anyway, I'm overly attached to my dog. Her name is Sheila."
The Teacher folds his palms so that the tip of his index finger touches his chin. I expect wisdom on the order of an Aesop fable about filling your life with people you love and who love you, and you won't be so attached to your dog.
I get so caught up in solving my own plight that I forget: I have no dog.
The Teacher, in his infinite wisdom, seems to know this.
"I've been having trouble," I offer.
"Troubled waters can overwhelm," he says, a statement that seems to emerge more from his priestly side than from his Zen understanding. He waits, tapping his chin. I don't know if it is a Christian pose or a Buddhist pose.
"Buddhists don't believe in God," I say, because I learned this much in Zen Gym 101 — the State Board wasn't that far off in its fear of heresy.
"Zen is open to anyone." The Teacher slowly opens his palms.
The timer on his desk dings. Our three minutes are up. I leave.
"All things are interdependent and nothing causes anything."
"The empty sky does not hinder the white clouds from flying."
"The dragon only sings in the dead tree."
I have no idea what this horse-hooey means.
We didn't get this stuff in Zen Gym 101, because we were cut short and never completed the class. That left me on my own trying to figure things out, and I haven't done such a good job. I can't get a grasp on why things had to happen like they did. I need assistance, but I must wait for my Daisan with the Teacher.
My knee hurts. I rub gently, and my finger skims across the bones that make our legs bend, the skeleton we carry with us throughout our lives. I retreat to my original posture, back of the hand propped atop the aching knee.
I should go back to school and get my degree. I need to sit. I need to be less sarcastic. I need a lot of things.
Sniffles snuffles. Granny Zoroastrian clears her throat. If Mr. Coleman Lantern T-shirt coughs, we've got a symphony going.
I strive to erase everything in my mind, giving traction to my thoughts so they don't tumble and slide into the ravine, but the water rushes fast and before I know it, I'm headed over the cliff: video images of my sister at summer camp, waving at the camera, making goofy faces in her red "Little Minnow" swimsuit. Vamping in her prom dress while Jimmy Granger beams. Serious as she sits in her tall, white-painted lifeguard chair. Always her lovely, lush hair flowing — head thrown back as she tosses her graduation cap in the air where it falls, falls.
The bell dings, and we are on our feet again, heading out the door.
"All things come of thee," the Teacher says, which sounds like Catholic doctrine trickling into his Zen talk.
Concentrate on your breath. Count to twenty as you exhale, pray you don't pass out. Let the life force flow through you unimpeded and do not ask questions to which there are no answers.
My eyes pop open. The buffalo stares at me, impassive. Why, I ask his marble, all-seeing eyes, couldn't she have lived until her hair turned grey and her fingernails grew gnarled and her beautiful face sagged with heavy wrinkles? Why did she leave me with these intolerable images of happiness and life?
Mr. Mole Behind the Ear taps me on the shoulder, and I flinch. He motions to the zendo door. The candle flame flickers as I pass.
"What brings you to the sesshin?" the Teacher asks me, as if there really is no past and each moment is starting over.
"My sister died," I begin but, under his level gaze, my courage wilts.
"My sister stepped on a nail, her blood turned septic, and all of her systems failed in a rushing cascading flutter of death."
The Teacher's eyes don't waver.
"She was stung by a bee, she's allergic to bee venom and while everyone watched, she grew blue and her lips puffed up and then she was dead."
At his stare, I swerve again. "I was driving drunk and ran off the road, pelting her into a sycamore tree, breaking her neck."
The bell dings. I rise.
"How do we eat Zen?" the Teacher instructs before we leave for supper. Then he answers his own question. "We sit up straight, no elbows on the table, we eat quietly."
Together, we chant our meal gatha and proceed into the dining hall where they serve us tuna fish sandwiches with ruffled potato chips.
Chomp, chomp, smack, smack. Quiet as a chipmunk cracking nuts between her teeth. Plus, I keep jerking my elbows off the table with an, "Oh, crap!" which violates both the stated rule of silence and the unstated rule of no cursing out loud.
We get a twenty-minute tea break — Lipton in Styrofoam cups — to allow our food to digest, then back to the zendo for a final twenty-five minutes of zazen, and we are dismissed for the night. I have no more opportunity to talk to the Teacher — or anyone else for that matter — until the morning. Without the stricture of zazen, my thoughts are free to fly where they may like a bird firing into the sky then veering suddenly off course and diving nose first into the grassy fields.
As I round the corner to the hallway that leads to the sleeping room, I pass the framed Jesus. I straighten his crooked frame and notice his raised hand. He's waving at me.
I wave back. Then I see the nail hole in his hand. So maybe he wasn't waving. Too late: a wave released is a wave gone.
Female sleeping quarters is a room with four bunk beds hard against the pine paneling. A small sink is stuck into the corner for face washing. We take turns using the john. Red-Headed Janie brushes her hair like someone out of a novel. Big-Breasted Bertha squirms into her nightgown. Granny Zoroastrian removes her false teeth, plops them into a drinking glass she swiped from the dining hall. The pink gums sink against the glass, waft gently through the water like pink sea creatures searching for the land of their birth.
I fall asleep to the Teacher's words: "No coming, no going, nothing causes anything — who will judge you?"
Five-forty-five in the morning, I'm back in the zendo, courtesy of a bell gonging down the hallway at five-thirty. The group performs Greeting the Teacher, where the Teacher snakes around our cushions and passes us one by one, at which point we are to bow. When he passes me, I am afraid to make eye contact.
Everyone except the Teacher looks disheveled, ruffled. Our cushions have become our nests, we twitter and flit like mama birds settling in. It doesn't help when the Teacher yelps, "Cushions!" and we all go to straightening big time. Wadded Kleenex and folded ponchos and sheets of paper fly around us.
The Teacher rings the bell three times.
Why three times? Will he ring it again?
"Everyone who has ever been with us is still with us," the Teacher's voice reminds the group. Something inside of me relaxes and my face falls slack and my hips displace and I can hear a bird outside of the zendo chirp.
"The mountain knows the stillness of a mountain."
The breath in my lungs expands with the ease of a flower unfolding.
I exhale. The bird chirps. Will she chirp again?
Breakfast is oatmeal. I keep my elbows off the table. I do not curse.
We settle into our cushions. We are in life. Life is in us.
The bird chirps.
As we walk Kinhin past the archery range, the rising sun streaks the morning sky. The air smells like new beginnings. Spring flowers, maybe. Or like wno, where the end tails around and loops into the beginning again: life, death, life and death again.
"My sister was so full of life," I say, to forestall the inevitable question. "Everyone wanted to be around her just because she radiated . . . something. She loved little children, she was patient as hell with them. She'd finally found a boy who was worth her love, Nick Jamison. She and Nick were planning on getting married. She wanted soooo many kids and Nick said, 'Okay, if they all look like you.'"
"Why are you — "
"She saved a boy from drowning, when she was only sixteen years old. They wrote her up in the newspaper as a 'Hometown Hero.' The little boy said, 'She gave my life back to me.'"
"What brought you to — "
"She died," I say, "at age twenty-six."
"She lived at age twenty-six."
"She is gone."
"She will always be with you."
"Her spirit is alive."
"She is dead."
Like bickering children, we have arrived at an impasse, so I bring in a new authority. "The buffalo says she's dead."
He shrugs. "What does that buffalo know? He can't even find a hat that fits."
I smile. He smiles. The bell dings.
The Teacher asks Big-Breasted Bertha to perform a bell solo. She sits ramrod on her cushion and strikes the copper bells one by one. With each strike, a clear, solo note rings out. When she finishes, she bows to the Teacher. The Teacher bows to her. He turns to us and lifts his palms.
We all stand and bow to Bertha. She keeps a straight face. We sit.
"You have sat zazen before," the Teacher says, more a statement than a question.
I nod. "Fifty-nine days. Then I came here. Two more days. That makes sixty-one days. Almost."
"Why have you been sitting zazen?"
I stare at him — will we ever get past this?
"The first day you found your cushion and you sat, but the second day you came back and sat again. Why?" he prompts.
I feel the bell about to ring, and rush out with it.
"Shelia was my sister. She had a mole on her back, hidden below her left shoulder blade. It turned cancerous. They took off the mole, but it was too late. The cancer had spread from her skin and lodged inside her body. She lived three months. All her hair fell out, then she died."
The Teacher says, "Why are you sitting zazen?"
"Why are you sitting zazen?"
"She was my sister!"
"Why — "
"Because she died and I should have died! I have a mole on my knee." I touch the knee that has supported my open palm for sixty-one days. "She died when I should've been the one. She followed all the rules, she lived her life exactly the way you were supposed to." My mind reels across the three months of tubes and shivering and throwing up in the wastebasket. "It was so bad." Tears fall from my eyes. Their traces stain the flowers on my cotton pants a darker shade of blue. "I don't know why I'm alive," I whisper, then raise my head and meet his gaze. "It's the good images I can't stand."
"What is good, what is bad?" he asks.
I return to the early morning hours beside her hospital bed where the rising sun cast her beautiful face into a place more beautiful than ever. The noontime reading of our favorite childhood books, funny voices and all. The four o'clock chemo when I combed my fingers through her thin strands of hair and time flowed like a meandering river going nowhere until the final evenings when she lay motionless and I repeated every single story my mom and dad had ever told us about our family and when those ran out, I recited all my memories from our childhood — good, bad, indifferent — because she was in them, I was in them, we held them in our minds together.
I stop crying.
It was our best time together, there, in that hospital room where she died.
I wipe my tears. We sit in silence until the bell dings.
"Each moment is a moment," the Teacher says. "No past, no future. Just now."
"Nothing is real, all is real."
"To grieve is to be ignorant."
"To love is to be supremely wise."
Breathe in. All is breath. Breathe out. Breath is all. Good, bad. Alive, dead. Sorrow, joy.
Who is to judge life?
Once more around the archery range, once more inside the small room for Daisan, once more with the questions. Except now I have answers.
"What will you take away from sesshin?"
"That I came to sesshin."
"Why did you come to sesshin?"
"There is no coming, no going."
"Who will judge you?"
"No one will judge you."
We are now.
We pack up our cushions. We bow to each other. We silently exit the zendo.
When I retrieve my duffel bag from the female sleeping quarters, Jesus still waves, his upturned palm greeting anyone willing to pass. I step close to him. I lay my palm flat against his.
"We're all in this together, bro."
I swear he nods.