(I found an old piece of writing I thought I’d lost, from a 4th of July 18 years ago.)
I sit in a café on July 4th, writing these words in my journal:
My life has been one of such change and uncertainty these last months that it all feels tentative, unfamiliar. It is almost as though it doesn’t feel like mine, as though I am living in a fiction. I suppose a psychiatrist would call it disassociation, but perhaps it is just a letting go. (What is the difference be enlightenment and Alzheimer’s?) I guess the good thing is I do want to stay with the story to see how it turns out. And the main character though flawed is likable enough. I’m just not sure who is writing it. Some days it feels like a Raymond Carver story. Though if I could I would have that moment of grace and redemption, however fleeting, that is offered in almost every one of his stories….
In writing that I forget that putting wishes and questions into words, even if it is in the black and gray of my computer screen, is like giving form to a prayer or a divination. Sometimes that is what writing is. The words take form on the screen like bones burned to divine the future, like incense smoke bearing prayers to heaven.
I also forget that those prayers can be answered swiftly at times. I don’t know who or what answers them. I was never comfortable with the word god–too constricting. There is the Native American phrase “great mystery,” or as Katagiri-roshi used to describe it, Buddha’s world. Whatever I choose to call it, as Katagiri also said, it supports me like the ocean if I just dive into it.
So I leave the café, and decide to walk up the bluff out my back door. To get out of the house, to watch the town’s fireworks. I climb the cliffs at the end of the bluff, away from town and close to my house. Once on top a trail runs along the high meadow that covers the bluff. Out of breath from the climb, I walk along the trail, lost in thoughts of how I don’t want to go to this. I like fireworks enough but tonight I am not in the mood for a group experience, oohing and ahhing over the colors and explosions.
I lift my head up from my self-isolating, pitying thoughts and there he is ahead. Just off the trail stands a young deer. Eyes dark and liquid, he stands unmoving, all senses and readiness to run. I stop and take a deep breath. I walk along the trail at an angle to him and he lets me come closer, nervous. But he is in his element here and can run if he needs to. I get within 10 feet of him and sit on my haunches on the trail to let him know I mean him no harm. I talk quietly to him and he looks at me, cocking his head
as if to ask what is with this crazy human being. He stomps his front hoof at me
twice and the thought arises, what if he charges? Once again rational mind intrudes on what I take to be a moment of ecstatic communion. Like that night long ago when a squirrel overhead in a tree squawked at me, I squawked back, and we had a conversation. I thought, “He could be rabid and leap down onto my face to bite me.” And I took off. Let’s just say my mind sure knows how to spoil a moment.
But this time I stay. We stand sharing the sun, the sky, this high meadow, the sumac and flowers, and then he takes two awkward jumps back, I lean forward and in an instant he is gone into the cover of some nearby trees.
I stand there stunned, finally turning to head on to the other end of the bluff, where people will be gathering for the show. I almost turn and head back toward home, knowing that even if they blow up an H bomb over the town, after this moment, it will be anticlimactic. Instead I keep on and sit with everyone else on the edge of this old hill. The display is beautiful–the explosions right there in front of us, the river below reflecting the flashes of color.
Then it’s over and I turn to head back over the trail again. I could take the way down everyone else will. To climb down again will be harder in the dark, but I want to walk past our meeting place. The deer is not there. “Ah well, grace passes,” I think.
But the great mystery is still not finished with me. I look in the darkness and the sumac along the trail, confused, thinking at first I am still seeing traces of the fireworks on my retina. Then I realize it is not that. It seems thousands of small stars dance and spin through the sumac and tall grasses. They are filled with fireflies in the dark evening! I stop and bow to them. As if the deer was there to get my attention, so I wouldn’t miss this on my return. I am graced with this smaller act of beauty and magic.
I am not one to look for messages in these moments. Just this is enough. But the mind can’t help but attach some significance to this. If there is a message there, it is the same one the world always seems to give me, the one it sometimes shouts, sometimes whispers, but always murmurs…
“Pay attention. Pay attention. Pay attention.”