Saturday I woke up with vertigo and during that ordeal I remembered this photo. There, among my books, is my Zenster altar, and peeking out between the little statue of Hotei (aka, “the Laughing Buddha’) and the Three Stones is my big brother Bill. He died in 1996. A candle is burning.
Vertigo is a horrible experience. Lee has gone through this several times, I’ve done it once, so I was lucky to have some memory and a guide. Still, spinning around, unable to catch hold and unsure, you realize how fragile you are. How mortal. My body became queasy, I sweated and my skin, Lee said, was clammy and cold. The doctors say that vertigo is a malfunction of the inner ear, that bony mechanism that looks like a snail and somehow keeps us in balance. I don’t know what caused it. Perhaps a drug that I’m taking for my prostate. Or Friday afternoon I went to the chiropractor because my neck is stiff. Maybe something in the guy’s rather rough adjustment jiggled the tiny apparatus. All I know is first when I woke up there was a strange sensation in my head, like my brain was being bathed in electricity, and then the world began spinning. I started sweating, and I got clammy and cold. I wanted to lie down, but lying down made everything worse. I wanted to throw up. My only bit of relief was to sit hunched over on the edge of my bed and wait. After a while I had enough energy to go get the paper and read it. Davidson had beat Wisconsin, Stephan Curry, who looks like he might be 15, had scored 30. I decided to go outside to my office to meditate. I walked slowly. The spring air was so beautiful, the yellow columbines are blooming, the trees are leafing. I was happy to see these things. I lit my candle and turned to go sit and I got dizzy again. So dizzy that I curled up on the tile floor. The cold felt good, but the lying down made me nauseous. A few minutes and I found enough strength to get up go back inside. I stumbled into the bedroom and sat down on the bed, sitting straight enough I hoped to allow me to exorcise the vertigo out of my body. No such luck. I called Lee and she brought me water. She also brought a garbage can. Lucky she did because I started vomiting. I didn’t quit until my belly was cleaned out. Uggh. All through this ordeal I thought about dying. Maybe this wasn’t dying, but it could be like dying. I also remembered the photograph and thought about writing this piece. That’s how I am a poet, I guess. A couple of hours later I could move around. By the end of the day I felt strong enough to work some in the yard. Lee and I took a short walk. It was beautiful walking and talking and holding her hand.
Every morning I chant and meditate. This is my ritual. My habit. It takes about 30 minutes. When the bell sounds and my meditation period is over, I look to my left and I see my altar and outside the window is where we live. If the desert wind is blowing, like it is now, a wind chime will be ringing. The story about Hotei is that he carries a big sack on his back and gives out little gifts of food and sweets, especially to kids. Sort of a Santa Claus. The Zen Flesh Zen Bones collection says that once upon a time a Zen master came along and asked Hotei how is the Buddha realized? Hotei dropped his sack of goodies and sat in his meditation posture. He said not a word. This is what he’s doing on my altar. Then the master asked him, “Well, how do you actualize Zen?” And Hotei picked up his sack, bowed to his questioner and went on down the road. Again without a word. The stones are stacked on the altar instead of a statue of the Buddha. I picked up this idea from the Three Stones Zen Group in Albuquerque, of which my poet and painter friend J.B. Bryan is a member. The stones represent the three treasures—the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. And then there is my big brother Bill. I miss him very much. He was the oldest of our troubled single parent family. We loved each other ferociously and sometimes with terrible anger. We never found a way to talk. Bill, through the guidance of my grandfather, became a renowned hunter and fisherman. His neck was very red from sitting in boats and staring at the water. In college he earned the nickname “Swamp Fox.” He was also an alcoholic. But he knew and understood things about the woods and growing up and living and dying that are important pieces of my childhood. Bill must be 12 or 13 in the photo, at the cusp of his manhood. So every morning I look past the altar every morning and see the house where Lee and I have lived for the last 30 years. Also, though this photo doesn’t show them, three other photographs decorate my altar—my big sister Peggy, my little sister Patsy who is dead too, and me. They are formal photographs. My mother had them made as remembrances for us all. If Bill was 13, then I was 8. The year was 1950. Harry Truman was president. Next month I will be 66.
So when I finally felt strong enough that evening, I went outside and sat on my stack of pillows staring at the wall. Then, like I do every morning, I closed my services with The Five Remembrances. According to Thich Nhat Hahn in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, the Buddha had his young disciples repeat these remembrances when they were practicing kinhin, their walking meditation. This is Thich Nhat Hahn’s translation.
The Five Remembrances
I am of the nature to grow old.
There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to be ill.
There is no way to escape being ill.
I am of the nature to die.
There is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change.
There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My actions are my only true belongings.
I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the ground on which I stand.