I get up this morning about 5:30am and brew a cup of Kabusencha, one of my favorite green teas. Sitting in a low chair facing east, I sip the tea, watching light come into the day. At first the sky is a deep midnight blue, then it gradually changes hue: now gray with faint rosy streaks to the east. Bare tree branches filter colored light. Now, floating pillows of pink intermingle with baby blue. A train whistles nearby and the furnace rumbles, distant sirens sound. We are in a city, albeit a small city, and cars rumble by as people head for work. In the house across the street, lights come on and children get ready for school. Streaks of color become mauve, then begin to fade to white. Between moments of verbal chatter, I simply sit quietly. When the sun finally rises over the horizon, I close my eyes. This all seems quite normal, yet is my first lesson of the day in groundlessness. Everything changes, always. Nothing is solid or stable.
You wouldn’t imagine that I was reflecting about such matters if you had followed me around during the past few days. I have been submerged in the logistics of daily life: gathering materials for my first-ever conversation with a financial advisor; preparing to meet with our accountant to talk about the tax implications of the flood; clarifying what my benefits will be after my January 1, 2014 retirement; confirming flood insurance details with our insurance agent; applying to FEMA for housing assistance recertification; completing our loan application for the SBA; visiting the ATT store about my recently purchased iPad; working in my university office on a project that will be completed by mid-December; making appointments to look at three potential assisted living and memory care facilities for my husband David; considering longer-term housing in Longmont and Boulder—which means looking at houses and condos with a real-estate agent; and investigating flooring, garage doors, French doors, enclosed showers with a seat and handholds, spray foam insulation, and more for the Jamestown house.
Even as I think I have garnered a few quiet hours for reflection this morning, I receive several texts about winterizing the Sunset House, where we live right now. Then the phone rings and I talk with our SBA loan officer about the first dispersement of loan funds for repairs in Jamestown.
All of these details would seem to be a way of creating a new ground, and in a common-sense way I suppose that’s what I’m doing. But there is another way to look at this process that is related to the Buddhist lojong, a text based on the teachings of the tenth-century Indian master Atisha. The Root Text of the Seven Points of Training the Mind consists of seven key points that are subdivided into 59 slogans. My teacher, the Venerable Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, has taught on the lojong several times in the past few years. This year Norman Fischer, a poet and Zen Buddhist priest, published an accessible introduction to these slogans called Training in Compassion.
The very first slogan is “train in the preliminaries,” which can be understood in many ways. For me, today, it means acceptance that my old life has come to an end. My vision and aspirations about what life would be—this month, next winter, and in the next few years—have evaporated. I need to take time now to review my life and goals, especially in face of the fact that nothing is certain. The spring run-off in the mountains could cause another massive flood, destroying what we are trying to rebuild in Jamestown. Fire is always an imminent danger in the surrounding forests: last year there were three fires in our canyon alone and other destructive fires in Colorado. Does this reality keep us from repairing and rebuilding what was destroyed? No, of course not. But it gives me pause.
Work underway at our place beside the James Creek, mid-November 2013
Every day offers another lesson in contingency. Contingency is not the same as groundlessness, but they are related. Because everything is contingent, constantly in flux, there is no solid ground on which to stand. This, for me, is both a literal and figurative reality.