Thursday, August 18, 2005


It was a cool, calm, bright morning, ideal walking and picture-taking conditions. I'd thought about driving to Prospect Hill until I remembered that it was a weekday and that Day Camp would be in progress at its base. I'd had enough of unruly children -- and unruly adults for that matter -- during our several days on the Cape, so I opted for the Watertown circuit of the river path. Joggers, cyclists and dog-walkers are known quantities. I have the ettiquette down -- approach, eye contact, beneficent smile plus or minus a brief, spoken salutation -- neatly, innately choreographed as any bee dance.

It had been a lucky walk, so far. Leaning over the edge of a wooden observation deck at the river's edge, I'd spotted a groundnut, intricate, self-contained and serene amidst the more blowsy and riotous weeds and vines. I'd seen one last year, one town over, in a similar habitat -- curled up in a mass of loosestrife and burcucmber next to the footbridge. After one or two days I'd lost sight of it. It had been swallowed up by August.

How many more Augusts will I see ? I once calculated how many more cups of coffee I would drink in my life. I used equally generous estimates of cups-per-day and remaining years and came up with an astonishing number. Today I let the thought drift off like a fluff-borne seed; the twinge it left behind faded.

It has not escaped me that I come to the river to receive teachings about death. But not just death, of course. Just when I think it's all about dying, I realize that this riverrine dying is, in fact, a going-to-seed -- a preparation for dissemination and insemination, for germination. Round after round. August after august. A seemingly bottomless cup.

It had been, as I said, a lucky day. And it would continue to be so. I was standing pathside, leaning over a goldenrod, thinking about light and depth of field. It was shady there, and the voluminous yellow plant was crying out for f stops beyond my tripod-less rig's capabilities. I'd turned the flash off; it gave weeds a harsh, deer-caught-in-the-headlights look. Like news photography: perps caught in the act. Or cop shots: rigormortis and a white chalk glare. My hair, long overdue for a trim, was falling in my eyes. I was peering over the top of my glasses at the camera's LCD screen.

Suddenly I heard footsteps. As usual I felt a brief ictus of self-consciousness, like a plant that shrinks from the touch of gaze. I returned to the yellow froth ; focused; held my breath; held still, still, still -- and snapped. The footsteps passed. I exhaled and rose. Something caught my eye. Something improbably orange. Orange as the touch-me-nots that, earlier, I'd tried to photograph. I turned and looked.

It was, incredibly enough, a monk. A Buddhist monk, complete with bright orange robe, shaved head and sandals. Astonished, I watched him disappear around a curve in the path. A monk ! Was this some kind of sign ? I squatted beside a droopy green plantain. What did it mean ? There were more footsteps. I turned and looked up -- another monk ! A small, orange-draped Asian man was headed toward me. What was the etiquette for this ? I stood, smiled, and said hello. The monk smiled, returned my greeting and walked on.

I did not think to gassho. I did not, though I wanted to, take his picture. I just stood there. On the empty path. I was -- what ? -- eblouie, bouleversee. Blown away, overturned. Had they been real, or had some archetype escaped from my subconscious ? I thought of a film I'd seen years ago, a black and white version of Joyce's Portrait of an Artist. It had featured a recurrant, dream-like image of a file of white-hooded Carthusians. Was I dreaming ?

No, these were real men, real monks. Serious men on serious earth. Living counterweights to the triviality and predation in the world. Exemplars of peace and detachment. Of non-greed, non-hatred, non-delusion. I was, in that moment, so profoundly grateful for the existence of monks that I nearly wept.

I looked at the small bright meadow across the path. A towering thistle, bee-wreathed, was exploding into white fluff. In the construction yard beyond the fence, the boom of a beautiful blue crane was slowly swinging across the sky.

As I waded toward it through a waist-high expanse of Queen Anne's Lace, I realized the river path was giving me another teaching. A koan, in fact, based on the it's -Margeret-you-mourn-for at the bottom of my final yet-unconsumed cup of instant Nescafe:

What is the last drop of a bottomless cup ?

It's here somewhere, I thought, squinting into the light.

It's got to be.

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