A day off, beautiful early day of summer, yes, I go for my walk in the woods along the stream. Looking down from the footbridge to the sidewalk along Rock Creek Parkway below the Omni Shoreham Hotel, I see the mass of log and driftwood and sunken picnic beach lodged against the center pilings, upon which I've steadily seen two brown snakes sunning themselves on above the stream, has broken up. The water is clear today, not high, but running well. On the stream bed a small fish has made a circle, a perfectly round area about two feet wide cleared of algal muck to bare pebble and sand, the fish keeping steadily in the center as if to guard a nest. And about ten feet away there is another cleared circle with another little silver fish holding against different angles, occasionally pressing out to examine a new ripple, perhaps to catch an insect, or to investigate the intentions of another fish, and then returning.
I come along the woods' side of the stream, up the sand and dirt path, then down under the bridge and toward the stream that comes down from behind Dumbarton Oaks and Montrose Park, to take my meditating post on an old log. As I walk slowly along I feel the nourishment of simply being out in nature, my long week leaving me hungry and drained, and now soaking it all in. I think of how the grapes upon their vines absorb their surroundings, the Chinon with the same water molecules that passed through the frog in the shade of the cool early morning, alluvial stones, mud, the green things that grow along a stream. Like us, the vines meet each and every different day, bear the weather, take from the dance and agreements of nature, shared stories of sunlight, carry their grapes to maturity for an entire season. A recent article spotted somewhere treats spiders that have a taste for fish, and I have no doubt that they do, strange as it might be to picture. Nature having a taste for nature, the constant recycling of organic matter.
I think of the different time scales of the natural world. The robin hops about, a few steps ahead, stopping to study. The red squirrel with his tiny rapid heartbeat scurries into a crack, judging his movements just so. This animal I am moves slower, but it's all probably relative, each going at his own pace, taking in, reacting, moving along. To a larger creature our pace, an easy cant through the woods, would be of rapid fire nerve endings. The trees stand still in their own spot, growing upward, thickening, and perhaps to them we are like insects spinning around at an almost atomic rate.
As a bartender, over time, you're never setting foot in the same river twice. Each night, though related, is infinitely different. Buddha's teaching, that all is in flux, that we too are constantly changing, not even a fixed self, applies well, and holds shiningly true. The same person who came in a week ago is by now completely different. And each person, at each point in an evening's meal, is at a different point, and so to work you must constantly shift gear, this person for a drink and a chat, those people for a family dinner, that long table all mothers who know each other through their children's school and now drinking Pinot Noir, celebrating their friendship with a touch of bawdiness, one having kissed Jodi Foster in an elevator once. As an aside thought, it would seem that any system of morality should respond to the great fact of constant personal change.
So I sit, as lotus posed as I can, crossed legged, as the light comes down through Civil War woods. The trickling water over the rocks makes a sound as if all solid things are in reality hollow. I have a few clear clean moments of not really thinking of anything, and sense meditation to be a cumulative endeavor, gaining strength, insight, building upon the base. The trees rise above, gesturing to the light they can with all their leafy hands held out, direction, level, all agreed upon by the forest whole. The boulders, the rocks, the pebbles, the grains of coarse sand, all the same, each on a scale suited to its place in life's order.
It takes an amount of energy dealing with people. We're roughly, maybe some of us more than others, the same creature we were when there were not many of us upon the Earth. For the early human, encountering another human must have been fraught with possibility. Fight or flight, friend or foe. However our minds might tell of a vast cooperative modern system, the instinct remains, and upon each and every meeting, a whole new set of agreements must come about, brain circuits to establish themselves based on memory and tribal language. And then upon that there are the projections of ego, of made-up selves that constitute another whole layer that comes into play, calling the intellect's versatility to meet the challenge of finding common language, or just plain simply something to talk about out of the thousands of trivial things and reference points of modern eras. One person alone at a bar to wait on can take up as much energy as twenty. It would make sense if you secretly rather wished therefore to take control of people, perhaps by teaching them one great lesson to go and practice with diligence, something along Buddhist lines. "This is all illusion. Enjoy your glass of wine while thinking quietly about the nature within it." That might take less energy. Lincoln kept his Tuesdays open for his baths in (and of) public opinion. He was a strong man. Did he judge such a practice politically expedient, was it invigorating, was it good practice, did he derive some entertainment and wisdom from all the people with their demands?
I guess when you're exposed to a lot of that, as pretty much everyone is, one response would be to decrease the demands we place upon others, to make encounters reassuring and soothing, non-threatening. Others take the same data and proceed aggressively, the clock running, I'll take mine, here's my meaning, my identity, my material well-being, my primate thump of chest. But I myself, sometimes, find the response of the artist natural, Wyeth with his do not disturb sign, for that's exactly what it is. To say so might strike you as psychologically unhealthy or misanthropic, but then while you may please some of the people all the time, all of the people some of the time, you can not please all the people all of the time.
Perhaps this is why I feel pretty rattled when I wake up at the end of the week with a blank space of time opening before me. Things to take care of. The calling of a quiet day.
By the time I come back with carry out Chinese I have changed a hundred times more, actively or not. Outside of Du Coin there are guys I know wearing France World Cup shirts with garlands of silver shine. I manage to glide past them easily unnoticed. On the way back I find the bartender, a Chinese cat, standing outside the open windows on the street, a cigarette in hand, wearing a light leather jacket, his hair pulled back. His broad face, slightly weary smile, strong teeth remind me of a sherpa, having read about sherpas in Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard. "I wish you a peaceful evening." We're both headed home to eat something, he and I with a similar understanding of Friday night's show. He's shepherded the crowd through the big soccer match on the Jumbotron inside, France winning. "You and I have the same perspective on all this," I say to him, smiling, before turning away down the avenue's sidewalk past the crowd in Maddy's tavern, where before the barman was taking a break, sitting on a stoop smoking a cigarette.
To read Buddhism, to study, to practice what I'm able to, it feels like coming home, like getting my life back, like being in some control again.