On their Tuesday morning walk in Tilden Park, Livy and her friend followed the trail up a steep hill and into redwoods. They passed beneath thousands of tiny caterpillars hanging on threads from the live oak trees, twisting in shafts of sunlight. Livy worried that they were bad for the trees.
It was a month since Livy’s husband had moved out.
“The caterpillars are getting in your hair,” Livy told Sarah, and she reached up to brush her taller friend’s gray head.
They steered up the middle of the wide dirt trail, where there were fewer overhanging branches, and so, fewer caterpillars, until they came to an open place. Here, at the turnaround spot of their weekly walk, they paused to look at the view that spread itself below: the university football stadium, the comfortable brown-shingled houses of the town, the blue of the bay, and in the far distance, the spires of San Francisco, shining in the morning sun like a fairy-tale city, a mirage of happiness, not the unhappy world Livy would walk back down into.
As they started down, Livy said, “I can’t get used to being in the house alone. When I’m home, I feel like there’s nobody home, not even me.” She pulled a bandanna out of her pocket and wiped at her tears, but they weren’t flowing tears; they were like tears squeezed from stone. “When he left, I lost track of myself.”
“Oh, honey!” Sarah said. “It’s natural—it was the shock of it! Why don’t you come and stay at our house for awhile?”
But Livy didn’t want to do that. Not with Sarah’s teenage children, who hadn’t grown up and left home yet, like hers, and especially not with Sarah’s kind husband, who would never walk out on Sarah. Livy had lost that life. Somehow she needed to find a new one. “Thanks—maybe in a little while.” She paused. “Guard the path for me, okay? I have to pee.” She climbed up the steep bank, out of bright sunlight into shade, behind a redwood tree. As she was squatting, she saw in the dappled shadows just a few feet away, a ragged sleeping bag with a pattern of hunting dogs on it, and in it—a body! The head was turned away from her.
“Oh!” she cried out in surprise, and hurriedly pulled up her sweatpants.
The sleeper rolled over and opened his eyes to look right at her. “Mornin’,” he said with a grin. He had long dreadlocks. He lay in a nest constructed of boughs, and just above his head, a bundle of feathers hung from a tree branch.
“Excuse me,” Livy said and hurried back down to the trail. She thought she heard him chuckling behind her.
“Oh my god!” she said to Sarah. “I practically peed on a homeless person. I thought he was dead at first, but he was asleep in the leaves.”
“Oh no!” said Sarah. “How sad.”
But he hadn’t looked sad. If Livy were homeless, she’d rather sleep in the woods than on the street or in a shelter. In the woods, you could lie on the earth.
When they got back to the parking lot, Livy said, “Actually, he looked cozy.”
“What are you talking about?” Sarah said.
“That homeless man. Maybe he likes being homeless. I know that sounds horrible, but there was something about him… You know that song in Porgy and Bess? ‘I got plenty of nothing, and nothing’s plenty for me’?”
“Yeah, but Porgy didn’t write that song. A white man wrote it, imagining a black man happy in his poverty,” Sarah said. She put her arm around Livy’s shoulders. “Let’s do something fun together. Get massages, or some new clothes, or something.” She gestured at Livy’s old sweatsuit.
“But I don’t want anything,” Livy said. “Except release from self-clinging,” she added with a small laugh. “That’s what Buddha said is the cause of suffering. And my Zen teacher says that means you have to stop shopping.”
“Oh, honestly, honey!” Sarah said.
At the Zen Center near Livy’s house, a visiting monk from Thailand gave a talk on renunciation. He said his only possessions were his robe and bowl. Each day he and the other monks in his monastery walked in the village and begged for that day’s food. They weren’t allowed to touch money, and he said it was a great joy not to have to even think about it. “But you can get attached to renunciation,” he warned them. “At first I always tried to take the smallest piece of fruit, until my teacher noticed what I was up to and gave me a big scolding. The desire for the smallest piece is just as self-centered as desire for the biggest.”
At tea, in the community room, Livy overcame her shyness and asked the monk for his address. Maybe she’d move out of her house and go be a Buddhist nun in Thailand, sort of like Diane Keaton going to work with Mother Teresa in some Woody Allen movie she’d seen. Livy could probably live on her teacher’s pension there. If she could only get out of this hollow shell of a life, maybe she’d find a new way of being.
That afternoon, she went home and started getting rid of things. She wanted to get closer to just a robe and bowl. In mounting excitement, she put most of her clothes into boxes: Gap jeans, Lands’ End shirts, even her beloved Irish sweater. It seemed a dangerous thing to do—but what if she really could let go of self-clinging?
She drove the boxes down to the Salvation Army Store before she could stop herself. A sign in the parking lot proclaimed: “Donations accepted Tuesdays and Thursdays only.” It was Monday, but she unloaded the boxes by the door anyway. As she drove out of the parking lot, she heard shouting, and in the rear-view mirror she saw a man shake a fist at her. She kept going, like a thief on the run—feeling suddenly thrilled and free. For a moment.
After the early-morning meditation at the Zen Center, everyone always chanted The Heart Sutra, about how nothing belongs to us, nothing stays. “No eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind.” Strangely, these words felt comforting, even though Livy didn’t understand them.
Watching the teacher at the altar was comforting, too. Myoko was a woman about Livy’s age, with a shaved head. She moved like a dancer in her bare feet and black robes, folding herself down to the floor in a deep bow, and unfolding again and again, like a tree coming upright after a gust of wind. Livy imagined that Myoko understood what “no body, no mind” meant.
Livy decided to make a vow to give something away every day. Now, every time she volunteered at the soup kitchen, she took something with her—a toy school bus she’d been saving for yet-to-be-born grandchildren, a point-and-shoot camera, a wooden salad bowl.
For the Zen Center fundraising auction, she purposely donated something she loved. The large antique music box that had been her grandmother’s was the most valuable thing she owned, but it weighed her down with old ideas about who she was.
At tea after zazen Myoko drew Livy aside and said, “Thank you for your generous gift, but are you taking care of yourself?”
“I want to give everything away,” Livy said. “I’m trying to learn the practice of generosity.”
“Generosity is good,” Myoko said. “But we practice the middle way. It’s not our way to go to extremes. Now that you and your husband are separated and you’re not working anymore, don’t you think you should save something for your old age?”
“This is my old age,” Livy said. “I’m starting it early.” She was fifty-five.
The next Tuesday, when Livy and Sarah went for their walk, the homeless man came out of the bushes onto the path ahead of them. He hummed as he walked down the trail towards them. He had leaves in his dreadlocks, and he was carrying a stick with feathers and bells tied to the top.
When he was just a few feet away, he raised the stick and shook it at them. Sarah took Livy’s arm. But to Livy the bells on the stick were ringing a friendly greeting.
“Mornin’,” he said in a mellow voice. “May your day be full of joy.”
“Didn’t he look happy?” said Livy.
Livy’s daughter called, concerned about her mother because of the separation. “Are you okay, Mom?” But she was thousands of miles away, in graduate school in New York.
“The house is so empty,” Livy told her. “I feel like a shadow drifting around in it.”
“Why don’t you get a roommate?” her daughter suggested. “Like a foreign student?”
“No, I don’t want to pretend to be cheerful. I can’t imagine anybody I would want to live with. Except you. But don’t worry, I’m not asking you.”
A few days later, Livy climbed up the hill by herself to the place she’d seen the man asleep in the park. She wasn’t exactly looking for him, but she wanted to see his spot and imagine his life. There, behind the redwood tree, was a tromped-down place in the bushes where he’d lain, furnished with a five-gallon jug of water, a three-legged wooden stool, and several bunches of herbs and dried flowers tied with string and hanging upside down from a tree branch.
She walked farther up the hill, through thickening undergrowth, and came to a level clearing in a tangle of ferns. She kicked away some blackberry vines and lay on her back. Way, way up above her, the tops of the redwoods were still gold in the last rays of the sun; she rested at the bottom of a deep well of shade. She heard a distant bark and a woman’s voice calling a dog. The earth drew her weight close, and the poking of twigs through her clothes was a kind of greeting. She felt indigenous, part of the organic mass of the planet.
For several days in a row Livy found herself returning to the spot. She began to set up her world, one item at a time. Day by day she carried in her daypack, a tarp, a sleeping bag, a jug of water, a roll of toilet paper, a flashlight, and hid each thing under the blackberry bushes.
One early evening, she parked her car on a residential street a few blocks away from the park entrance. She walked up the trail with the other walkers and joggers, the dogs and their dog walkers. It had been a gray day, but the sun, before setting across the bay, made a sudden, theatrical appearance below the cloud cover, and the thousands of little caterpillars hanging from the oak trees spun on their threads in the honey light, more like a blessing than an infestation.
She waited until there was nobody in sight before she turned off the trail into the woods. The last of the sunlight disappeared from the tops of the redwoods as she made a pillow of her jacket and burrowed down into her sleeping bag.
At dusk, the birds set up a clatter. Livy watched the darkness spread itself slowly over her like a blanket, and she listened to the diminishing chirps of the birds, until they finally fell silent without a marking point. Then she heard loud rustling in the leaves. Her heart pounded. Could it be the dreadlock man? She hardly breathed, listening, listening. The rustling came closer. Her hand found her flashlight on the ground beside her, and she turned it on. Two yellow eyes shone back at her—a raccoon. It made off with her plastic bag of trail mix.
It seemed to Livy that she lay awake all night. But in the morning she woke up surprisingly rested. The feet of early morning joggers slapped the trail. She drank some water from her jug and packed away her things under the blackberry bush. Then she brushed her hair with her fingers, put on her sneakers, and, disguised as a jogger herself, set off down the hill.
Suddenly, the man with the dreadlocks was sitting cross-legged on the path right in front of her, as if he’d dropped from the sky. She gave him a wide berth, but he called out to her. “I’m not gonna hurt you!” She paused. “Name’s Asar,” he said. “What’s yours?”
“Livy. You startled me.”
“Mornin’, Livy.” He picked up his stick from the ground beside him and shook it so the bells rang. “Got my mojo workin’,” he said with a nod.
After a few days back in her house, Livy kept her Tuesday walking date with Sarah as usual. The morning fog lay thick on the trail ahead of them, and so when the dreadlock man emerged from the white shroud, he was already hard upon them. He rang his bells with a shake of his stick as he passed, and said, “Mornin’, Livy.”
“G’morning,” Livy said with a little wave.
Sarah stared at Livy. “Now all of a sudden he knows your name?”
“Oh, I met him on my volunteer job at the soup kitchen,” Livy said. And then, without a pause, “I’m thinking about renting out the house—downsizing, you know.”
“I’m not sure all this Zen is good for you,” said Sarah. “I think you should cling to yourself more, not less.”
Livy’s husband came to get his books. He was living across town with his girlfriend now. He let himself in with his key while she hid in the upstairs bathroom. She watched out the window as he and a student helper loaded cartons into the trunk of his Toyota, which was parked like a ghost in its old spot in the driveway. From above, she saw his bald spot and how the wind lifted the hair beside it. She couldn’t pull herself away from the window even though her heart dropped like a rock each time he straightened and turned from the trunk of the car and she saw his face again.
After he was gone, the empty bookshelves in his study mocked her, blowing dust at her as she passed the open door.
The next day, she changed the greeting on her answering machine, saying she was going camping. It was sort of true.
Every afternoon she left the woods to pick up a little food and go to the Zen Center. One day, during the closing service, halfway through the nine deep bows, Livy grew faint. Everything went black, and she couldn’t stand up again. So she stayed down, resting her forehead against the polished wood floor. In the manner of Zen students, everyone ignored her. When the service was over, she sat up very slowly, and waited for the others to leave.
Myoko stayed behind. “You don’t look well,” she said. “I’m worried about you. I could come by and visit you some afternoon this week. Would you like that?”
“No, no,” Livy said. “I’ll be all right.” But when Myoko gently touched her shoulder, she felt the prick of tears. “I’m upset about my husband.” Her voice came out high-pitched, like a child’s, and she started to cry. Only a little, but more than before. She’d been wanting to cry, but not now, at least not hard, not in front of Myoko. “I’m trying to practice renunciation, like that monk from Thailand.”
“Go slow,” Myoko said, taking Livy’s arm. “Go nice and slow.” She led Livy into her little interview hut behind the meditation building to rest, and brought her green tea and rice crackers.
Livy wanted to say something about feeling abandoned by her husband, but it didn’t seem very Zen. What she said instead was also true. “I feel like I have no self at all, but it doesn’t feel good. Didn’t Buddha say our suffering is caused by believing that we have a self?”
Myoko passed her a Kleenex. “Believing that we have a separate self—that’s the problem.” She put her hands out, palms up. “It’s good news, Livy. No separate self means you’re not alone, you’re completely connected to the whole universe and everyone in it.”
“But what’s connected?!? I feel like there’s nobody home to connect.” Livy tapped her chest.
“Livy Buddha and Myoko Buddha are talking together, aren’t we?”
In that moment Livy noticed the shaft of sunlight that was coming in through a slatted blind, painting stripes of light on Myoko’s shiny scalp and on the wall behind her. She nodded yes.
Myoko’s head moved slightly under the stripes as she spoke. “Buddha said, ‘Eat plenty of comfort food when your marriage is ending.’” How much of a joke was that? Livy wasn’t sure.
Nobody knew she was sleeping in the woods, except perhaps Asar. He might have guessed. When she met him on the trail, carrying his feathered stick, they greeted each other by name. “Do you know about these caterpillars?” she asked him. “Are they killing the oaks?”
“Oh, no,” he said. “They come from heaven, a year times seven.”
And some days later, in the afternoon, Asar walked up the hill right to her spot. He pulled a bagel from his pocket and offered it to her. “You need to eat,” he said. “Onion bagel, fresh this morning from the bakery.”
“Thanks,” she said. Emboldened by his kindness, she asked, “What is that stick you carry?”
“It’s a mojo staff,” he said, giving it a shake to make the bells ring. “It protects me from harm. Do you want me to teach you how to make one?” His voice was deep and resonant. He wasn’t singing an actual song, but still, Livy felt like he was singing.
“I’m a Zen Buddhist,” she said. “It might be sort of hypocritical.”
“We can call it a Zen mojo stick,” he said. “It can help you in your hard times.” What did he know? She thought of the time he had passed her and Sarah on the trail when she was crying. “You can tell me about your Buddha,” he added. “We’ll trade.”
So he sent her out looking for feathers that very afternoon. “You’re making a bridge between heaven and earth,” he explained. “The birds will help you.” That day she found only a blue jay’s feather, and a black one he said was from Brother Crow.
For the next several afternoons they worked together, and he taught her to weave the feathers with string. He hummed as they worked.
One afternoon he told her more about the caterpillars—they were oak moths, part of the natural cycle. When he got her to listen carefully, she heard their droppings falling with the sound of gentle rain, fertilizing the ground.
She recited the Heart Sutra to him. He liked the part where it said, “There is no attainment, with nothing to attain.”
He told her he lived in the park until the winter rains came, and then he stayed with his cousin and worked as a janitor at the university, in the Life Sciences Building.
So he was living in the woods by choice. He didn’t have to. She had known all along.
“My husband was a professor there,” she said. “I mean he was my husband, but he’s still a professor.”
“Rains’ll come early this year,” he said. “Any day now. You’ll need to find shelter.”
He cut her a good straight stick from a fallen fir branch and whittled it smooth with a jackknife. “My children are in Jamaica,” he told her.
“Why’re you here then?” she asked.
“I can make a good living here,” he said, “and send money home to them. Still got summer for the mojo. Still got time to live with my spirit friends, time to breathe with the trees.”
When her stick was ready, she wrapped the weave of feathers onto the end with red silk thread. Asar grinned. “First Zen mojo stick ever made.” Then he attached the stick to a branch over her nest, to keep her safe.
Asar didn’t come the next day or the next. The third day she walked down to his spot, but he was gone. Still, he should be coming back—there hadn’t been any rain.
She went to her nest and lay on her back. She watched the feathers on her stick move in the breeze. She missed Asar. She missed Sarah. She saw her daughter’s face; she saw her husband’s face. A gust blew some leaves down on her, and suddenly she was sobbing, grabbing her stomach. Thoughts vanished in the choking, the salt of tears.
Spent, she stayed very still, feeling the warmth of the afternoon. The branches of the redwoods moved high above her in a hot east wind, sighing with a thousand voices, and the feathers on her stick fluttered. Maybe Asar was getting bagels.
In a voice hoarse from crying she called aloud, “Livy Buddha! Myoko Buddha!” She would tell Myoko about making the Zen mojo stick. More softly, she chanted, “No eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind. No separate body, no separate mind. No separate body, no separate mind, no separate body, no separate mind.”