Over the course of my writing and editing this post, Michael Brown was killed in an altercation with a Ferguson, Missouri police officer. Ferguson is not too far from where I grew up and presently work. No matter what we might think of how and why this tragedy occurred, the fact that it did occur, and all that has ensued, can't help but give a reflective person pause. I am grateful for having grown up in a peaceful enough place that I was and am allowed to reflect, as I do in this blog, upon that which is most central to human experience. I wish for every child to grow up in such a place.
Chapter 4 (continued) – Acceptance
I’d just turned four shortly before construction began. While there had almost certainly been some scuttlebutt in the preceding months regarding the upcoming addition to our little avenue, in my memory it was an event that descended upon us out of the blue. Where once an unassuming parcel of land sat vacant across the street, suddenly a rectangular hole reached deep into the red clay earth. I remember us gathering around it that “first” evening, marveling as to the sheerness of its earthen walls, wondering at the speed with which so much work had been accomplished, solemnly pondering the conclusion of the older brothers down the street that the earthmover now sitting there idle must have been driven down the ramp carved into the other side of the hole in order to make the bottom so squared off and tidy.
Yes, it was to be just another house, but when you’re four years old and you’ve never seen a house get built before, it is a pretty big deal. There’s so much to examine and explore: the grooves that the teeth of a backhoe leave in the hard clay earth, the shredded roots of an adjacent tree, the building of forms for foundation walls, the smell of damp lumber and wet concrete; and the various and sundry nails, brick ties, electrical box knockouts, wire remnants, and scraps of wood and shingle and sheet metal that one might find scattered around a construction site. I remember watching the men work – at times focusing on the actions of one of them in isolation, at other times having the sense of them swarming about like ants. This is what we do. We build things.
Not long after the groundbreaking for that first house we watched as they ripped up the little vineyard that we used to play in behind the houses at the bottom of our street. This time it was to make way for an apartment complex with a name that we were told was from a foreign language. But even fifty some years of life have not completely erased my memories of that place. I remember how we’d go to the bottom of the lane and pick up the dirt road that wended its way up the hill from the heart of the Nursery. We’d sneak up to a point where we could oversee the vineyard from behind some bushes for a time in order to make sure that nobody was about who might be inclined to run us off. Then, once we’d ascertained that we were alone we’d run and crawl amongst the rows and rows of grapevines until an impromptu game of hide and seek invariably broke out of our overall furtiveness.
And so it was that the excitement of construction came to be suffused with the reality of its accompanying destruction. But even then there was always enough opportunity in construction in order to assuage whatever sense of loss might have arisen. When the thoroughfare out in front of that new apartment complex was eventually widened it exposed a deposit of ellipsoidal concretions that we were certain must be dinosaur eggs worth spending day upon day to unearth. When the road graders tore through the forested hillside bordering the creek where we used to play they also allowed us to discover a vine-draped tree from which we could swing high out over the emerging roadbed. And when the new highway carved its way through the limestone bedrock underlying the rolling terrain of our ever-expanding domain we were afforded endless hours of fossil hunting amongst the newly exposed outcroppings.
It was only later that my adult mind came to associate the construction that has taken place over the years in and around my old neighborhood and throughout this sprawling city with something more insidious and foreboding. Whereas my child’s mind was more fully accepting of these changes as being a natural part of the world order – we build things – my adult mind can’t help but think that we’ve lost our way, that we’re out of control. Yes, we’ve fallen. I’ve fallen. As a species we’ve lost our ability to accept the sufficient bounty of the forest, and as an individual I’ve lost the ability to accept our human activity as being an integral part of the natural order. How strangely ironic it all is!
At the beginning of this book I described a group of turtles sunning themselves contentedly amongst the flotsam of an urban waterway. They were as accepting of the trash in their midst as we children were of the various changes occurring in and around our little neighborhood. As children we were no more in control of what happened in our environment as the turtles were in control of theirs. We entertained no thoughts of banding together and taking action to put a stop to the encroachment of progress on our areas of play. We harbored no ill-will towards “greedy” developers or the “pillagers” of earthly resources. No, the wisdom that we embodied as children manifested, at least in part, as a complete acceptance of that over which we had no control.
Acceptance at times comes grudgingly. At times it comes only after a bitter and losing battle that ultimately ends with our surrender. The acceptance of children, however, is so complete that it comes without any internal struggle whatsoever; it precedes any and all judgments as to good and bad, right and wrong. Faith in Mind, a famous poem by Seng-Ts'an, the Third Patriarch of Zen, succinctly describes the predicament of the fully self-aware individual in its first few lines. The nature of reality is unobscured, he declares, as long as one refrains from making judgments. Begin to make distinctions, however, and heaven becomes cleaved from earth.
Of course, this making of distinctions is precisely what transpired after that legendary event all those years ago in the Garden of Eden – the consumption of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Thenceforth, heaven was indeed cleaved from the earth; and, thenceforth, we humans began to hold ourselves captive with the chains of our very own distinctions. The irony of our predicament is that our burgeoning self-awareness, the self-awareness that leads us to the making of self-centered distinctions that cleave us from the natural order of things, eventually leads us as well to the realization of our fallen state – to an awareness of the unnaturalness of our ways. This irony is present in Seng-Ts’an’s words, i.e. the distinction between going through life making distinctions, and going through life without!
Despite being tinged with this fundamental irony, Seng-Ts’an’s words undoubtedly speak to us today and are worthy of putting into practice. Having said that, we humans and our self-serving distinctions have created far too many problems to be resolved by simply dispensing with the making of distinctions. What we can do, however, is begin to make distinctions from a place of greater wisdom. We can begin to make distinctions from a place of increasing acceptance. By getting back in touch with the wisdom of children we come to realize that we have enough, that we are enough, that we know enough. We come to have faith once again in the “sufficiency of the forest” that has always sustained us. Yes, we may have to live like those turtles for a time – amidst the flotsam of our own creation – but over time our increasing self-awareness will bring heaven and earth back together again.
The Great Way is not difficult
for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent
everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however,
and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
(as translated by Clarke, 2001)
Clarke, R. (2001). Hsin-Hsin Ming: Verses on the Faith-Mind by Seng-Ts’an, Third Zen Patriarch. (R. Clarke, Trans.) Published by White Pine Press.
Boy on a toy front-loader via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:
Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank