Ten Thousand Things

In a commentary on practice by my teacher Albert Low, I was surprised to read that he recommended looking down rather than at the scenery as one walked in nature, at least for the beginning student, in the “first fifteen or twenty years.” Since much of the long trip I take each summer is taken up with responding to the landscape, I was taken aback. I read carefully as he explained that “it is neither the trees nor the birds, the river nor the blue sky that weaves its magic: it is awareness. When we go out for a walk like this we adopt a particular mind-set, and this is compatible with practice. With the same mindset one can walk through the slums of London and feel the same communion.” One can be open and aware in nature or anywhere. We may hear the rustle of leaves; better, we may hear a police siren.

It is true that when I travel, my mind is more open and attentive, particularly to dramatic and beautiful natural things. Less so, when I am home. It’s not entirely true that I lack attention, since I have worked on being present over the years, but still, there is a differential.

It might be good, I thought, to take a look at my patterns of awareness as I stayed here in Vancouver. Certain things draw my attention on my walks with my dog and cat: flowers and shrubs, bamboo and fern borders, projections in the sidewalk, lawn ornaments, crows.

Animals capture my interest—a cat on the porch swing, ae little spaniel being walked down the block, fish in a koi pond, a dead squirrel this morning, which my cat Murphy sniffed and pawed. The squirrels that leap to tree trunks and Rex follows, jerking me round. Some of the animal-watching is protective—cats and squirrels may inspire a lunge on the lead. Other things are to my advantage too—trash cans to deposit the sack of dog poop, houses with for sale signs and information sheets (I have rarely found one I could afford), cars coming down the streets we cross.

Interesting differences in houses—roof lines, porches, towers and balconies, stonework, latticework, arbors, palm trees, brushy yards with weeds and overgrown hedges and trees hiding whatever is behind, squares of lavender or lily. Folk art—banners and prayer flags, lawn ornaments, screened images of birds (there are several on the walls around the neighborhood), hand-made signs. A child’s table with a single chair in a shady, postage stamp backyard. A paradise of wagons, three-wheelers, plastic playhouses glimpsed through the slats in a back gate.

Food being grown—grapes in arbors and along fences, espaliered apple trees complete with rounding fruit, herbs in raised beds, drying tangles of sugar snap peas, red gleams of cherry tomatoes, blueberry bushes, blackberry patches left to fruit among weeds, containers of lettuce plants and shaggy tomato bushes on decks and balconies, corn in a row along an alley fence with twine holding it upright, bruised apples on the concrete and green balls of English walnut.

Water in any form—the elaborate stream and falls at Anthem Park between apartment buildings a block away, the shine of something spilt along the asphalt near a dumpster, the shrr of water down a backyard fountain. When it rains, puddles and mud and beading on cars.

Stories—the two women, one black, with tight slicked hair, one a haggard blonde, smoking on the curb outside a residential home. The rose with a short stem abandoned on a metal table outside a Subway early on a Sunday. Underwear and jeans discarded beside the sidewalk, now covered with city grit and leaves. I look down into the gardens of Columbia House, which I believe is assisted living, and see an old man turning onto a path in his automated scooter or a group of women under a canopy playing cards. A man stops to let Rex enter the street, then waves and drives on as Rex veers to inspect a sapling. A young neighbor makes his slow way down the sidewalk, letting his cat trail behind. They cross a street and climb the steps to a porch.

Having read my teacher’s comment about everyday awareness, I let my mind open wider this morning. So many colors and textures to the sidewalk—smooth pale gray in newly paved spots, the gritty, moss-embedded dark of sections that date back to the twenties and have been lifted awry by tree roots, fish scale patterns on sloping corners where bicycles and wheel chairs need access, or red-painted metal plates there with raised polkadots for traction. Cracks and concrete patches, lines of grass or moss, a rain-melted wash of chalk, a scattering of dried fir needles. Someone has sprayed mysterious turquoise markings down the center of the alley—repairs intended?

To some degree, I always participate in what Rex sees. What has he pulled toward? what is he sniffing? He has a much different view of the world. The base of trash cans and dumpsters call him, and mysterious scents. He stops at bamboo piled at the side of the alley, and we walk over the blonde blades which have fallen across the alleyway. He sniffs and paws at a spot like any other in the mulch of a flowerbed.

Today as my mind softens, our trip down the alley is a progression of sniffings, at little nubbins of green with purplish flowers, hairlike fibers of flower or weed, the corner of a gate. On my walks I can tell myself stories about what I attend to (why does the family have peace doves and Tibetan prayer flags, are they pacifists? I remember picking brown-eyed Susans like these for my mother.) Rex’s world is full of things I cannot easily put into words. Since I cannot participate in their olfactory significance, they become random dips into the texture of life—arch of grass, board dark with rot, splay of pebbles, shadowy brown irregularity. Rex is showing me the ten thousand things that make up life—really, below the ten thousand things, not to emptiness but at least to things less codeable in language. That is valuable practice, I think. At the least, it feels good to do.

—Sarah Webb, 7/27/2014

Poem, Emeritus

A poem has achieved
  emeritus status,
when it’s yellowed and rumpled
  with crease lines and sweat stains,
a corner missing, torn loose,
  too many times re-pinned
    to the corkboard and
taken down
  to be read, again.
Stared at in comprehension
  and incomprehension.

See down near the bottom
  the ink fades and runs
in a now dry lakebed
  of evaporated tears.
  in multiple hands and hues.

This poem has retired
  and been recalled,
been re-assigned and inherited.
  And now emeritus, it no longer works
every day, but serves as advisor,
  on call.

—Jeffrey Taylor


Evening thunder
rumbles through my chest. Smiling,
hearing the rain fall.

—Korin Anita Swann


The kitchen is the heart of the home and the fridge is the quietly thrumming heart of the kitchen.
We are not a family who displays portraits of ourselves in each room, smiling in uncomfortable sweaters with animals and for a split second, being still. We know what we look like.
But on the door of our fridge is a small collection of photographs of my two sons, during mostly their childhood. Each photo is a small tableau of a part of their lives and mine.
One has them at a beach in Hawaii, early teens, with the classic shot of older brother buried in the sand, just his head showing, and younger brother laughing wildly with his foot on his brother's head.
Another has them in a desperado pose, with real guns, staring dangerously at the camera but wearing bright yellow ear plugs.
Then there is one of them, when they were small children, in a pirogue that I used to own. It's taken from behind, over their shoulders, showing the requisite bright orange PFDs, their dripping paddles lifted, about to help propel us past the old Seaholm Power Plant on Lady Bird Lake.
My favorite, of course, has me in it with them. My hair is dark red, and my face is young and confident. The boys are five and six years old, and I have one on each hip in a strong, fatherly grip. We are at the Rio Grande Gorge above Taos, New Mexico, and the land falls away behind us with blue mountains in the distance. Seconds after my wife took the photo, a huge wind came swirling up the gorge and I had to squat and hold them close so we wouldn't be blown over the edge to the river below.
And that's what I taught my sons—walk close to the edge because the view is invigorating, but always be ready to squat!

—Robert Porter

The Summer Tree

In the dog days of summer, this tree watched two brothers;
Little boys running, wrestling and laying down in the cool shade.
They gazed at the shadow of the leaves on their tanned skin.

In the dog days of summer, this tree watched two brothers;
Teenage boys sneaking, scheming and sharing a stolen cigarette.
Their backs up against the trunk, dreaming in the moonlight.

In the dog days of summer, this tree watched two brothers;
Young men building, learning, and meeting only at vacation times.
Shaking hands under the tree before they went back to their lives.

In the dog days of summer, this tree watched two brothers;
Men in their prime, reaching, searching and talking of money.
Words too loud to hear the breeze float through the leaves above their heads.

In the dog days of summer, this tree watched two brothers;
Come to the full circle of middle age, having won and lost.
Hands with age spots patted the rough strong bark.
Wrinkled eyes looked up at the green leaves blazing gold in the sunshine.

“This tree has seen a lot of life.”

“Yes it has, yes it has.”

“It’s a good tree.”

“Yes it is, yes it is.”

—G. Elizabeth Law