On rainy weekends in these dark winter months, I have sometimes taken a break from family and neighbors to stay at a nearby Zen center. I’ve holed up by the wood stove long into the night. In the mornings before the sun has risen and in the late afternoons as the sun is going down, I have joined the black-robed Zen priests in the dark of the zendo to meditate, bow and chant.
I’m not used to chanting; in fact, with my secular turn of mind, the rote recitation of these words (often in Japanese or Pali, with some in English, still difficult to follow) makes me uneasy. Yet in spite of my skepticism, there’s a charge to the chants, intoned in deep hypnotic cadences which resonate through my body.
All dharmas are marked by emptiness; they neither arise nor cease, are neither defiled nor pure, neither increase nor decrease. . . . Therefore given emptiness, there is no form . . . no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no sight, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch. . . .
And at the close of a service, after a series of bows, I join in one more chant, which I am beginning to know by heart:
All my ancient twisted karma
From beginningless greed, hate and delusion
Born through body, speech and mind
I now fully avow.
This chanting leaves me with stray thoughts, vague questions about emptiness, about the nature of experience. Can I control it? Is it mine?
Back at home the rains continue, day after day now of cold winter storms. Over the back fence, in Bart and Amy’s yard, the cats run for shelter: Velvet, Patches, Simba streaking into the garage. Turbid waters overflow the storm drains, rushing past our house. The flowing water makes me think of Strawberry Creek before it was culverted back in the early days of this neighborhood, how the creek descended from the hills, zigzagged through many yards, passing our house, on toward San Francisco Bay.
These days of rain, slick and dirty, match my insides. I’m swept along inside by wariness, a pervasive mood, dark and weepy. What comes to mind is the later history of Strawberry Creek when the sewer lines and creek culvert got mixed up so that raw sewage spewed in.
Lately, I’ve been researching the history of this place where I live. In the days of the early settlement, run-off from dirt roads, mixed with horse droppings and urine, emptied into Strawberry Creek. In later years, petroleum byproducts washed in. And now, there are even more toxic discharges: thousands of curies of radiation released since the 1940s by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory into the upper watershed of the creek, emissions from the 2,500 university science laboratories, and radioactive hydrogen released by the National Tritium Labeling Facility.
Reflecting on this history jiggles my “woe is me” habit of mind. I’m reminded of the great flood: of creeks and sewers, of toxic wastes both physical and mental, of moods murky and bright.
Later in the week, I catch a dreary mood before it takes me over. I can see it moving through, beneath the surface, threatening to contaminate relations with family and friends. I stop and take a good look. This mood may not be connected to any of the particular situations I might attach it to. In fact, that dark flow feels downright impersonal. I didn’t ask it to come, and I don’t seem to be able to get it to go away. I don’t know where it comes from, but I am beginning to get the feeling that it does not belong to me.
I take a cheer-me-up walk with my friend Stephanie, with whom I have been working to protect our local shellmound (circa 3,700 B.C. to 800 A.D.), once home to native people at the mouth of Strawberry Creek where it fed into the bay. Stephanie tells me about a meeting she’s missing—private, invitation only. It’s about “daylighting” Strawberry Creek, opening up the culvert so that just as in the days of the shellmound and the early European settlement it can run free. Still not completely cheered, I say, “I should have been invited to that meeting.” Several years earlier, I insist, it was I who had the idea of engaging the local developers and merchants in a project to bring Strawberry Creek out of the culvert. In fact, I tell her, it was I who had suggested this to the very fellow who is now organizing the “invitation only” meeting. It was my idea.
“Do you think you own your ideas?” queries Stephanie (maybe a bit sharply). I feel it like a slap.
As we drive out towards the Berkeley Marina, I am dismayed to recognize how much I have at stake in being known for my wonderful ideas. I imagine Strawberry Creek liberated from its culvert, wending its way through my Ocean View neighborhood, and indeed I do want to take credit. Yes, I want somehow to own it (the idea, and maybe, tangentially, as its patron, the creek too)! Come to think of it, the very notion of claiming ownership—of an idea, of a creek (what about a shellmound?)—is beginning to seem absurd.
One Sunday, I wrench myself away from my research on sewers and, my mind saturated with fecal imagery, go next door to sit with my neighborhood meditation group. I fold my legs and begin to listen to my breath. Instead I hear in basso profundo: “All my ancient twisted karma. . . .” Try as I might, I cannot shake this chant nor the images, dark and rank, coiling though.
What a grim chant. I don’t even like chanting. But here it is, having worked its way into my consciousness. After failed attempts to fight it, I give in and start repeating it silently to myself. I’m intrigued, although I don’t want to make too much of this. It’s about karma after all, and I’m not even completely comfortable using the term. Still, I do have a sense of how it is used: karma’s the law of cause and effect. This happens because that happens, which can be endlessly complicated, involving countless causes and conditions.
Just to see where the words will take me, I begin to play with the meaning of the chant. First off, the karma is not only twisted, it’s ancient. For me these days, ancient reaches back through the Ocean View settlement, through the Spanish ranchos, through 5,000 years of the shellmound, and even before the migrations of protohumans onto our continent, back through the evolution of living things.
So this karma goes back a long way. Given that it carries the influences of all of history, I surely don’t “own” the karma exclusively. But it does move through me. (I keep picturing my angst and grievances twisting along.) And here’s the rub: it’s born “through body, speech and mind,” what I do, what I say and what I think. All of which have consequences.
I consider the words “I now fully avow,” which close the chant. As I repeat them, I’m saying: I acknowledge it openly, I am aware of it, fully. In fact, when I chant these words, it feels like I’m taking a vow: to always notice what I’m doing, and even what I’m thinking.
This Zen chant reminds me that as the movement of cause and effect twists into view, I can take stock: Do I dump waste, either fecal or otherwise, into the creeks? Do I think toxic thoughts towards others, towards myself? Spew out toxic words? If I can fully avow what’s going on, won’t I be less driven by the momentum? Won’t it translate less readily into action?
All messages seem to point towards the same conclusion: I may not own this great stream of life events, but how I act and think feeds into it, and I do have a profound responsibility to it.
At sunset one evening, I look out the kitchen window into the adjoining yards, where jasmine and potato vine cascade over the fences. Just beyond Amy’s fence, I’m surprised to see my daughter, Caitlin, carrying little Olivia from next door. Olivia’s mom, Emily, with her now-visible pregnant belly, is there too. And Amy, gripping her arms around her own shoulders, is running up and down laughing. Or is she crying?
Amy shouts up to me, “Call Animal Rescue. We need an ambulance!” And as I run down the back steps, she says, “It’s for Patches. When I was driving into the garage, I ran him over.”
But Patches has fled in panic and cannot be found. Amy catches sight of him hidden in a pile of bricks, but as she approaches, he escapes. All of us lean over the bricks to see traces of blood on the pavement.
“Cats do that,” says Amy. “If they’re in a state of shock, they run away and hide. They go off alone to recover in solitude, or to die.” She can’t stop shaking. “Ran over my own cat,” she keeps berating herself, no matter how many times we remind her how slowly she drives through the gate, how careful she always is, how many causes and conditions could have led to this. . . .
Into the night we search for Patches, circle through all of the backyards. Emily and Amy carry cardboard kitty carriers; Myriam, my downstairs tenant, makes flyers to post. We’re joined by Steve, who shares the care of several cats; Lisa and Felicia, owners of two little dogs; and my husband, Patrick. Finally, Bart, who’s rushed home from work in San Francisco, joins in with a big lantern and an open can of tuna fish.
With trepidation, I enter each alley. This is the first time I’ve ever been in some of these yards, the backside of the block. I scour our yard, littered with a broken lawn mower, a rusting bicycle and a festering compost heap; the patio of the Good Shepherd Church; the tangled weeds behind the community hall; the courtyard of the apartment complex; Lisa and Felicia’s; Grandma Darlene’s. No matter where we look, no Patches.
It’s getting dark now on the street. Through the dimness, I hear other searchers. Mostly it’s Amy’s call, “Paaa-tches,” with a lilt on the first syllable. This, followed by the haunting whistle, three notes—low; then high; then one in between, a long warbling plea.
Neighbors I don’t know by name come out on their porches, study Myriam’s flyer, nod. “I see that cat all the time; he crosses through just there.” They point towards hidden pathways between fences, a fissure in a deck, a tunnel under a broken-down shack. When I concentrate my attention and picture this route, something rotates in my mind, flips open. A new map takes form, a cat-landscape—startlingly unfamiliar—superimposed on the one I thought I knew.
It’s two days before Amy finds Patches, bleeding and dirty, but alive (to our great relief). He’s been hiding in the side yard between Lisa and Felicia’s and the Good Shepherd Church. Several nights after Patches has been found, I wake up at 2:00 a.m. I can’t sleep. My mind is chaotic with excitement. The search inside these neighboring yards has shifted my sense of the block, but I can’t pinpoint how. After years of getting to know this neighborhood, I feel unexpectedly unbalanced, as if I need to begin all over again because I have it all wrong. I’ve got to put the whole thing together, to remember how each yard fits with the next. I sit up in bed wrestling with ideas.
Of course. I will go back to those yards—Grandma Darlene’s, the apartment complex’s, the church’s. I’ll do it first thing tomorrow morning and give them all a closer look, take notes on what abuts what, how they connect. This idea is so satisfying to me that I finally feel ready to cuddle down under the covers again. I snuggle up next to Patrick, prepare to sleep.
Just before I doze off I am jolted by a new thought. I don’t have the right to go back. There’s no way I can get up tomorrow morning and blithely step onto any of those properties. In each case, I would be trespassing—intruding on what is privately owned.
When Patches was still missing, the ordinary boundaries, the rules for dividing up the land, were momentarily suspended. No one had said that, but we all knew. And now, even though there hasn’t been any overt announcement, I know that those rules have snapped back into place.
Suddenly I see it—the whole block as one expanse. Awake in the dark, I’m exhilarated. What I’m seeing is beyond “owned.” Nobody can own the fundamental ground.
Yes, we’ve agreed to divisions, categories by which this place is separated into our house, Steve’s house, Bart and Amy’s house, and ostensibly owned. We assume (me too) that there’s one map for dividing up the space into these owned properties. I’m onto something. It’s the other map, the cat map. And who would say that the cats “own” the block? Not even Amy. I think of all the forms of life passing through the alleys, inhabiting this land. Each has a map: the snails, the ants, the bacteria. Do the bacteria own the block?
Tiptoeing out of bed, I step to the back window, look out over the shadowy yards—“ours,” “Amy’s,” “Emily’s,” “Grandma Darlene’s.” By the light of a wan moon, I can make out the fences. I stood in the middle of those many yards, looking through the cat-map for Patches. As I think on it now, owning this expanse of land depends on context (humans, cats, snails, ad infinitum). Ownership is simply a convention by which I might (and usually do!) describe it. Of course, this doesn’t just apply to ownership. In itself, the land doesn’t have an enduring essence of any other kind, good or bad, small or large . . . “neither defiled nor pure, neither increase nor decrease.” It’s empty of all that.
Poor Patrick. Right there at 2:30 a.m. when he’s happily asleep, I get back into bed and wake him up to tell him my ideas. “Mmmmmm,” he says, quite sweetly.
In the morning when he wakes up in the acceptable way, I’m hoping he’s forgotten that I so rudely woke him during the night. But he rolls over and gives me a jaunty look. He queries: “Do you know what’s been happening in the Berkeley City Council during the time Patches has been lost and you’ve been spinning out your theories on ownership?”
“No, I don’t,” say I, disappointed now that he’s going to go off on some political diatribe about something in the city council which I will not understand and may not find at all interesting.
“The council voted that in City of Berkeley ordinances, people who own pets can no longer be called ‘pet owners.’”
I begin to smile.
And he continues, “One faction wanted to call them ‘pet guardians’ (as they do, after all, in Boulder, Colorado, and North Hollywood!).” He raises one eyebrow. I see his lawyer’s mind at work: if you didn’t “own” her, couldn’t anyone just poach your pet? “But a compromise was finally reached.” Patrick pauses. “In Berkeley, we’ll call them ‘owner/guardians.’” He makes a sad, droopy-in-the-eyes-and-mouth sort of face, his lower lip curled into a pout. “So according to you, we aren’t owners of our property anymore. Are we its guardians?”
“Guardians,” I repeat. “I like that.” But I think of “our” yard, with its broken machinery and neglected compost heap. And then other venues where we might be guardians but usually are not, starting with “body, speech and mind.” Certainly not our neighboring yards. An image comes to me of the culverted creek running beneath many yards. When the creek is buried, how easy it is to assume that “our” yard—inside the bounds of its fence—is owned independently from other yards. If Strawberry Creek were exposed, passing through all the other properties, “ours” might not seem so independent. Wending through our yard, that creek might call to us: Take note of what flows in, of what flows out; be guardian to the broad terrain.
This article is adapted from Barbara Gates’s book, Already Home: Inhabiting What’s Here (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2003, www.shambhala.com).