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Visit

January 18, 2006 16 comments

Seventeen years in your house
makes it strange to have you
in mine, heels of your fine
polished shoes clattering
against my New England floors.

I want so badly to please you
that the countertops ache
from repeated scrubbing.
Fresh flowers on every table,
water in the carafe by the bed.

By tomorrow we’ll argue
politics again, each stunned
by the unconsidered policies
the other promotes, but
let me enjoy today to its fullest.

I marvel that you are with me.
Your aftershave and your cigar smoke,
they comfort me. Surely
your voice will be with me
all of the days of my life.


By Rachel Barenblat of
Velveteen Rabbi

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The Homeless Life

January 15, 2006 14 comments

New Year’s Day, 2006. I have tried sixteen times to write about “Finding Home.” This is the seventeenth draft. Why it’s so hard to write this? It should be easy. First, introduce myself. I’m a postulant at a nuns’ temple in South Korea. I’ve been here since May, living with the nuns and preparing for my novice examination in February. Next, give the classic Buddhist term for a monastic, sramanerika, “she who has entered homelessness.” Now contrast “home” and “homeless,” making it clear I’m talking about spiritual homelessness and not financial destitution. Write about the “openness” the spiritual journey requires. Insert an anecdote or two, preferably humorous yet profound, and wrap it up around seven hundred words with a pithy paragraph about the freedom and joy of renunciation.

Last night, I scrapped draft fifteen and started draft sixteen. It being New Year’s Eve, I also wrote a New Year’s “writer’s resolution” on the back of my notebook in black permanent marker: “It is better to be plain and honest than fancy and vague.” It’s more an observation of the truth than a resolution, but it’s exactly how I want to write. Drafts one through fifteen were fancy and vague, full of nice images and witty puns about my life as a Buddhist postulant. They danced around the central experience I’ve had since coming to this temple to train to become a nun—aching loss. Some dharma teachers are emphatic that you “speak well of the temple” and not disclose the difficulties of your training. I tried to follow this advice, and what I got was fifteen essays full of pretty deceptions. The sixteenth was better, but I was still trying too hard to be happy and positive about an essentially heart-rending experience.

Here it is: I decided last winter I wanted to seek ordination in order to attain enlightenment and save all beings. I found a good teacher, a nun whose face carried the qualities I wanted to develop: calm, joy, strength, centeredness. I prepared for “homelessness” literally. I pared a lifetime of books, clothes, pictures, school things, junk, and letters down to two boxes I left at my parents’ house in the States. I brought a small box of Korean language texts and Buddhist scriptures with me to Korea, along with one pair of pants, several shirts, a sweater and a winter nun’s robe. Then I showed up at my teacher’s temple.

First my teacher and grand-teacher took my old name and gave me a dharma name. Next, they took my history. This was mostly because of the language barrier. My Korean is about as good as a two-year-old’s, but the accent is worse. I couldn’t communicate beyond basics. Forget explaining emotions or thoughts, or anything about my life and the ways and why of who I am. I suddenly became a momentary entity, completely unable to build relationships based on what I could say. See how many of your conversations begin with a recollection of something in the past, or a projection into the future. See how many of these past and present stories build your identity and make you feel solid and continuous. Take it all away. See how stripped from time and life you feel—how alienated from the person you were when you could speak about yourself. When it happened to me, I felt completely gutted of everything.

The alchemy of temple life does something too and probably would have led to the same loss of self as the virtual silence of the language barrier. Living in a community with little personal time and no personal space would shake anyone. What really tore into me, however, was my own aspiration to change. I wanted to let go of old habits. I wanted to live better, more compassionately and wisely. Ninety-nine days out of one hundred, I do the same damn things I’ve always done. I react with the same anger and defensiveness I always have, the same jealousy, the same anxiety to please. It’s what a friend of mine, a postulant at a different temple, calls “the inner four-year-old,” the selfish voice that says to nearly everything, “I don’t WANT to!” Living with others this closely and this constantly—all day, every day, all year—means I have nowhere to hide from the bad effects of bad actions. The mere aspiration to change has done something. I can no longer justify myself. At the end of every day, I know when during the day I was right and when I was wrong. I don’t have the refuge of delusion, and this reduces me to hopelessness and tears most days.

I’m not a novice yet. I still have a month of exams to pass in February and March, and it’s not certain I’ll pass. Postulants have to navigate a series of written and practical exams on basic Buddhist thought and temple ceremony as well simply make it through the month-long boot-camp style training and test period. I could, technically, still walk away without breaking any vows. But even if I did walk away—and I won’t, because one other thing I know at the end of each day is that I’m right where I’m supposed to be—I wouldn’t be the same. One taste of homelessness, and it’s in your bones. From here, my old life looks like a disaster of selfishness, anger, fear, and pride. I could hide from it all because I had built myriad distractions into my daily life. Most of the time I couldn’t see the basic problem. Coming to the temple was like razing everything to the ground, only to find the ground was rotten.

Now I have a choice: stay the way I am or move forward. I’m choosing to move, one day at a time. Some days I hate it. It’s exhausting. I’m rarely at peace. But things are shifting, slowly. I have moments when I can feel how far I am from where I started. What’s more, this life is real, grounded in the truth of cause and effect and human relationships. Every time I refuse to give in to old habits, when I act differently, I can see the difference in the way I live with others. Life is clearer, relationships stronger, and the world rests for one moment. Then it’s on to the next moment.

It is, in the end, the only way I can live. Naked, unprotected—homeless. I can’t tell you about joy or happiness. I can tell you about the satisfaction of living this way, and that it’s terrifying and difficult but worth it. It’s the first day of the New Year. I’m finishing draft seventeen and submitting it as is: plain and honest. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Written by Soen Joon Sunim

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Home Enough

January 14, 2006 10 comments

I called the barracks home when I was in Basic Training. The other women hooted at me for using the word home so. But I figured, bed + warm + my stuff was there + good plumbing = home enough. My standards for the word home were minimal, physical. Taken down to bedrock, my home of the homeless. I had attachments, or told myself I did; I was supposedly happily married. I kept perfunctory contact with parents and brothers. Dimly, I was beginning to see that I had no emotional home.

I grew up in stable poverty. A small, old, house—mortgage paid for before I was born. Food on the table, it was cheap, but it was enough. Mom sewed clothes, ensuring there was always sufficiency, if nothing extra. We were poor, but without the recompense of love, or family feeling. I was the last, the unexpected child, the idea of daughter my mother wanted—but more in the tomboy variety that she did not understand. Certainly, I was not the Daddy’s Girl my father wanted. I was a much played with new toy, an experiment, to my much older brothers. I felt there had been a family, once, but I was not part of it. I was too late. I was not turning out to be the person they hoped for. I did not belong, but I had nowhere else to go. Home was physical, nothing else—a place to go at night to sleep. Roof over my head, clothes on my back, food on the table, this was the motto in this house.

The homes I made for myself for the next decade were much the same, spare, sufficient, lacking a safe for my heart. I had to guess at what home was, just as I had to take a stab in the dark at what love might be. I guessed wrong.

Perversely, I learned about what home could mean in the context of the Army. The foothills appeared in people who often shared emotional backgrounds that resonated with mine. In the military, the ‘Art of Conversation’ lives—if somewhat profanely—and, man, we talked all the time. I found myself never more alone than I wanted to be. At 0200, suppose I was feeling lonely, I could jaw with the CQ sergeant at the desk, at the very least. No taboo subjects, no need to hide my thoughts or ideas, no stringent standards or religious sensibilities to pander to, no word unsayable. For the first time in my life, I could be utterly myself, and be liked, accepted.

In this world not obvious for its warmth, waiting to be sent off to a war, on a high mountain military post, I found a completely genuine human being. Much to my dismay, he loved me. More, I grew to love him. And one cold bright day, with a nasty sinus infection—healing thanks to his intervention (getting some of our docs to write a prescription and getting my sergeant to take him to get it filled)—I laid my head on his knee, warming in the low winter sun on the parade ground bleachers, and fell asleep. I knew, at that moment, what home really was, and it wasn’t a house, or plumbing, or stuff. It was being safe, being treated lovingly, being myself utterly, and, well, yes, having a place to rest my head.

Home is where the heart rests.


Written by Zhoen of
One Word

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Zooming into Home

January 12, 2006 12 comments

“Let’s go flying,” my husband says, and so we sit down side-by-side at the computer, type a destination, and stare in fascination at the lighted screen, where the earth zooms closer and closer until we are flying over Beijing, Bermuda, Bombay. We zoom into a housing development, fly over city parks, scan acres of rain forest and desert, explore villages along the Amazon, the Rhone, the St. Lawrence. Human beings have never been able to do this before: silently, benignly, we pass over the world’s houses like Yahweh over Egypt – but leave no trace.

The computer lets us approach in a startling demonstration of general-to-specific. The world becomes a continent becomes a region; a particular city surrounded by mountains; a set of streets; a house on a certain corner, with a brick walk and a tree in the backyard: someone’s home, someone’s place in the world.

The technology is new, but the feeling was known to me already. Whenever we’ve returned to Vermont after traveling, I’ve noticed the closing sense of familiarity and tried to pinpoint it: where does “home” start to feel like home? When does our own local “area” begin? What – besides the arbitrary municipal boundaries – marks out the village? Then we’re suddenly there, moving down the familiar streets past the mini-mart and the falling-down diner, and Lester’s car parked in his driveway – and there’s the neighbor’s cat in the window, and then our house, our flowering crab apple, our back door, my hand on the knob: home.

When it’s a place you love, that’s a good feeling. I’ve also shaken my head at some of the places I’ve lived, astounded that of all the spots on earth, this is where my zoom ends up; this is where the map tack goes. And yet, for most people on earth, I think there is in fact a virtual map tack that they’d identify as “home,” even if they are presently displaced.

It’s natural to zoom in on our own home, but not so natural to stand in someone else’s and look out. When I was in college, I drove across the country with a friend. We were in her little yellow sports car, and one noon we pulled into a family restaurant in Nebraska and ordered our lunch, which was served by a blond farm girl about our age. When she brought the check, she stood by our table, hesitating, and then asked, “Where are you from?”

“Ithaca, New York,” we told her, and then she asked where we were going. “San Diego, California,” we said. She was silent; in her eyes I saw the longing and felt hopelessly uncomfortable. We went out to our car and drove off; she stood in the plate-glass window, watching, holding our plates.

That was the first reversal I’d experienced in one of those look-alike franchises that hug highway exits in every major town. The concept is to make travelers feel “at home” with identical décor and identical food, before continuing on, away from there. But what if “there” is “home”? Who are those waitresses, those dishwashers, the people mopping the bathroom floor? The traveler’s trajectory is so privileged: a line between two points, this stop an insignificant, momentary deviation. But for the locals, this place is a zoom with a final thud, as the map tack goes in to stay. A mile away from the exit, life is lived not on a vector between distant places, but in circles that bring us back again and again to that specific spot we call “home”.

The other night in Montreal, the new place we call home, I was walking back to our apartment down a street lined with typically narrow, attached triplexes. So many residences! More in a few blocks than in my entire Vermont village! And each door distinguished by a number, a color, a lace curtain, a wreath or some Christmas lights, a child’s drawing taped to a window.

At a corner, a young woman carrying a baby turned and headed down the street in front of me. Where was she going, I wondered? The baby bounced and peered at me over her shoulder. The woman slowed slightly, yes, here was her building: now, what floor? She hoisted the child more securely onto her hip, and started up the wrought iron staircase, stopping at the second floor landing, and rummaged in her bag for her keys. She stepped inside, the light went on, the baby turned his head to face it.

Home.

Written by Beth Adams of The Cassandra Pages

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Finding Home

January 11, 2006 18 comments

i

my white shoes looked like a baby’s,
high topped leather, scuffed
they provided a sturdy anchor
for metal braces
burning along my thighs
their steel stays
prevented my knees from
bending and so

the houses of early memory
are filled with stairs about to be climbed
and encounters with gravity,
with slippery steps up to the front door,
wet mittens sticking to the wrought iron railings,
front doors opening onto stairwells,
interior rooms joining hallways
which are – inevitably – joined by stairs,

stairwells with unevenly worn steps,
wood steps up, cement steps down,
stairs with no rails at all,
circular stairs of triangular wedges
each too small for secure footing,

long stairs without a landing to rest on,
stairs to tumble down
with loudest banging,
the noise as terrifying
as the spinning view, as the fall
and the sudden stop.

ii

in my house green leaves grow
along the windows
and swirling in a teapot made by my hands
are tea leaves from around the world
that I earned by singing
and on the walls are flowers that always bloom
cast in brilliant paint
by my daughter
and photographs of my lover
dancing the wild white river waves

in my house music flows, and poetry, politics,
debate, silliness, laughter,
love of nature, waste
the lovely and the profane
in every room collecting
and colliding
dust, the dust
of our boots
of trails brought home
of books, skin, dog hair,
the detritus of life

each room of this
hundred year old house
collects ephemera –
knowing caresses
under the comforter,
dreams of spiders,
and stray eyelashes—
we shed our bodies and
dreams and memories
as we somersault
through our lives.

iii

I am a stranger
even among those I know well
a part reserved, a part apart,
looking for secure footing –
knocked loose
or loosely tethered
subject to extreme gravity
centrifugal force –
circling
looking for something lost
something remembered
something once left behind

sometimes in a song
in a forest
in a poem
while making love,
something deep within moves –
odd, riverine,
flowing and vast,
inhabitable –

a strange, unfamiliar
luminescence,
wholly recognizable as
home.


Written by MB Whitaker of
Find Me a Bluebird.

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Touching Earth

January 10, 2006 9 comments

The earth appeared in my yard one day, and I went out to see what it was – a creamy blue-green ball hovering chest-high, unmoving. That’s not possible, I know.

So let’s say I appeared one day in space vastly enlarged so the earth again appeared to me a stock-still ball. Neither is this possible.

Nevertheless, a change was instantaneous upon my appearance nearly an arm’s length from the small orb: the attractive grab of my zillions-fold mass sucked it open in a lemony puff of liquid and gas.

I was pattered with a spray of glowing orange lavas. I received the largest shards of the earth’s metallic core into my flesh and melted somewhat myself in splashing detonations.

I was so big that the time of smaller things moved slowly, and it took minutes for the meteors of earth to arrive.

In bed last night I dusted my pillow with the grit I could not wash out of my hair and ears.

Written by Bill Knight

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Blank Spaces

January 8, 2006 6 comments
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Out of Place

January 7, 2006 16 comments

At the heart of Central Square here in Keene, New Hampshire stands a bronze sentinel who guards downtown both night and day. As watchmen will, he stands alone, his view of Main Street obscured only twice a year: in October by a towering scaffold of Pumpkin Festival jack-o-lanterns, and in December by a stories-high spruce decorated with Christmas lights. It seems curious that Keene, like so many other New England towns, has a soldier at her center, for he seems out of place in a quiet community, vigilant and alone in an otherwise placid place. And yet these days it seems I stand as he does, a woman alone amongst families, out of place yet stationed in the practice of watching.

When I first moved to Massachusetts and then to New Hampshire, I was one half of an army of two. On visits to see family in Ohio, my then-husband and I countered questions by explaining we’d chosen to live in New England; we’d chosen to remain childless so we could do unthinkable things like live in a Zen Center or sell a perfectly good house to move into an apartment. Although my former in-laws duly visited New England at least once a year to see not one but two wandering sons, my family has never understood my leaving. “Why do you live there?” a sister asked after I’d e-mailed photos of my car buried by a recent snowstorm. Implicit in her question is an accusation: Why do you live there rather than here; why did you leave the state where your family lives?

In my writing and photography, I obsess about place, depicting time and again the same streets, sidewalks, and facades seen on daily dog-walks through town. At times I seem to argue for my town over any other: Isn’t she lovely? And yet my parents in Ohio never visit my blog, for it resides in cyberspace, a place as distant from their lives as New England. Why advocate for a town that is mine only by adoption, a place that is kind but holds no kin? If I’m trying to explain why I chose to live here rather than there, to whom am I speaking? Am I trying to persuade others to follow, or am I trying to convince myself to stay?

Like a soldier who has set down tent-stakes, I know the lay of the land around Keene: I’ve done more than my share of reconnaissance while walking with dog and camera. But unlike locals who have always lived here or newcomers who have invested by buying homes, bearing children, and starting businesses, I’ve no lasting commitments to this particular community. I don’t own property, I’ve no children to yank from school, and my circle of friends exceeds the limits of this town. In relationships mediated through phone and Internet connections, I could live my life almost anywhere. Even my job as an adjunct writing instructor is tenuous and temporary, a mutual agreement between college and contractor to stick around, for now.

Keene was a bustling town when I moved here two years ago, and she continues to burgeon, experiencing the usual growing pains: increased traffic, a flurry of corporate development, an alarming upsurge in crime. Locals rightly question the intentions of newcomers reaching for their piece of the New Hampshire pie. What will happen to downtown businesses now that an outlying strip mall is nearly completed? What use do locals have for a handful of proposed hotels? Keene thrives on an autumn influx of tourist dollars, but locals need to live here year-round. As I too watch Keene’s maturation with concern, I realize I’m neither native nor newcomer. If Keene changes irrevocably, there’s nothing but loyalty stopping me from pulling up stakes and stationing myself elsewhere, and I’m not sure how strong the ties of loyalty really are.

In December I walked to the Christmas tree lighting in Central Square. Families with bundled children were awaiting Santa, and the downtown gazebo was adorned with a caroling choir. There were bright-lit shop windows and lines of luminaries reflected in small, wide eyes. As usual, I walked alone, camera in hand. Christmas is for children and families; in December more than ever, an unaccompanied woman feels out of place, her solitary status running against the weft of society’s fabric. But if a lone woman is out of place anywhere, why not walk streets where children stroll with attentive parents in a town where Santa arrives, alluringly, on a glistening red fire-truck? Returning to my warm apartment, I settled on my mat and cushion, following the breath that feels like home. A Buddhist with a place to lay her mat, I tell myself, is never without refuge.

Keene is a question I’ve not yet solved: after two years of watching and walking, I still don’t know her true face. If someday I finally feel entirely at home in Keene, her mysteries solved and my place here found, I wonder if that will be adequate motive for me to stay or the final push I need to go. As someone obsessed by place, I know that “Here” is relative: I could find that, along with my feet, “Anywhere.” For the time being, I love my quaint little Keene, but we’re not married, and she has many suitors. Although I occasionally feel out of place in a landscape so far from my hometown, right now Keene is my chosen vantage, my stance set as I watch her streets as closely as any bronze sentinel.

Written by Lorianne DiSabato, of Hoarded Ordinaries.

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Where I Am Married

January 5, 2006 6 comments

When we are young, we live where our parents live. For some of us, the place of our birth is a perfect fit, and we never leave it. For others like me, something is missing there, and we look for home in places we have never been but long to find.

After college, my wife and I stayed in my birth state of Alabama just long enough to save a little money, have a baby, and decide where it was that we belonged in this world. Native soil for both of us was in the deep South, but we felt certain even then that our true roots were north of Alabama, and that they would take their source from mountains we had not yet seen. When we found southwest Virginia in the mid-seventies, we were confident that we had come home, or at least that we had found the larger neighborhood of mountains and valleys where, some day, we would put down roots and stay. We’ve lived in or longed to return to Virginia ever since. And now, finally, we’re here in Floyd County for good. But why here?

Something has drawn us here all these years, brought us back, caused these hills to be a nutrient we could not live comfortably without. Maybe the longing we felt could be called a persistent, inborn “sense of place”. Others have used the term, defined it for themselves, found it—in the far north, the Midwest, the desert or shore. But what is it? Is it an essence in the air like the salmon sense as they migrate relentlessly back to the creeks where they were born? Is it a magnetic compatibility with geography, an imperceptible, persistent resonance in our bones that tells us we are home—or not? For me, this siren call to place has come from the southern Appalachians. All of the places I’ve chosen to live my adult life have been in or within sight of the mountains. It is a kind of marriage, perhaps.

A man can be fond of women, but he will settle down in a relationship and build a love affair full of meaning with one woman. And so it is, ultimately—if we are fortunate—with finding our place. I am drawn to the Southern Highlands. I have a particularly strong affinity for the Blue Ridges of these ancient Appalachians. But I sleep every night with this singular configuration of creek and forest and high ridge that I now call home. For the first time in my life, I feel a monogamous fidelity to one fixed and particular place that is as deep and permanent a commitment as the vows I have taken to this one woman, my wife.

In the past two years of living intensely at home, I have had the blessing of time alone with this land, and I feel that we have consummated our bonds: on slow winter walks along Nameless Creek; in quiet summer mornings standing on the front porch with my coffee; during autumn afternoons alone on the ridge sitting with my back against the smooth trunk of a tulip poplar watching pasture grasses down below swirl in the wind like coursing, surging wildebeests on the Serengeti.

It has not always been an easy companionship with this place. I confess that I have resented being here at times—the sameness, the separation, the hardships of living faithfully committed to this bucolic retreat week after week. But the relationship still grows. The more I come to know the shape and moods of this valley through the seasons, the more I know myself as I walk its paths and photograph its beauties and imbibe its wonders every day. And the more I know that we can live together— ‘til death do us part.

Written by Fred First, of Fragments from Floyd.

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Place of Sense

January 3, 2006 15 comments

When you live in a place
long enough you learn the smells.
The smoke from its factories.
The ammonia from the fertilizer plant.
The slaughter house blood and bone.
Garlic frying in the woks.

You get used to the sounds.
The honking of horns
and squealing of tires.
The sirens of cops
and the silence of robbers.
The helicopters flying overhead.
The family crying
at the young girl’s funeral.
The wild laughter
from the neighbor’s apartment.
The Corpus Christi
procession in the street.
Hip hop music from the cars.

You recognize others on the street
in this place where you live, where
you’ve learned the smells and the sounds.
You walk by people sometimes.
Sometimes they walk by you.
Some of them are bright-eyed,
alert to the world.
Some of them carry their fists
clenched, their jaws set.
You notice that some of them
keep their eyes downcast, averted.
Some never talk.
But the eyes are always
saying something.
Something about love and hate,
about life and death,
here where three rivers meet,
The Floyd, the Big Sioux and the Missouri.
Some of the eyes know you.
They remember you
and you remember them.

The dead girl had been
murdered by her ex-boyfriend
She was an only child.
I know the family.
The funeral was on
a Friday during Lent.
A cold rainy day.
The interment was
on a windy hill.
The notes of the mariachi band
were lost in the wind.
The violins got wet.
The ladies at the parish hall
forgot it was Friday and served
ham salad sandwiches.
I guess that funeral was
everyfuneral for everygirl
everywhere.

Sometimes people just walk by.
You nod your head.
And they nod theirs.
They are like the others.
They are not like the others.
It is always hard to tell.

Let me make this clear.
It has something to do with
the sense of place.
The place of sense.
And the spirit in you.
And the spirits beyond you.
You become part of a place
and the place becomes part of you.
And that is what I needed to say.

Written by Fred Garber, of Factory Town.

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