BootsnAll Travel Network

Everybody is a hoe

Up at 4:30 a.m., meditation for forty minutes, and then the whole place–managers, gray heads, newbies, everybody–heads for the fields on Wednesday mornings, to work from 6 a.m till 7 a.m. I guess the idea is to keep everyone connected with the original mission of the place. Today the job was hoeing. Everybody got a hoe, and we chopped the rows, weeding and aerating the soil around the baby lettuces. The chunk! chunk! chunk! of the hoes was rhythmic in the dawn as the birds began to sing and fifty people fanned out in the field. Flaming queens in their hats and scarves; old dykes with faces like leather and painter’s pants with farm implements hanging from the belts; young and buff people, old and stiff people, couples and singles, everyone working in silence. Then breakfast. Then I had dishwashing for two and a half hours, cleaning toilets and guest rooms till lunch, then more dishwashing till nearly 3 p.m. I’m absolutely worn out, but the best part of the day was the hoeing.

I deepen in the realization that I don’t want to live at a Zen center. Often I swing like a monkey on a chandelier from one emotion or opinion or fantasy to another. But this one is here to stay. This life is not for me. I knew I was stepping into the unknown, coming to these places. I knew it would be hard for my old body, and that I might not be up to the work demanded. I have been up to it, just barely. I’ve only missed one half-day of work in these two weeks. I’ve been able to make beds, scrub toilets and floors, hoist big pans full of dishwater, lift racks full of dishes, pull weeds, drag tarpaulins full of soil, and yes, hoe–right along with all the other people here. I’m by far the oldest laborer at Green Gulch (that’s not counting the old gray heads who have been here long enough to get past the “laborer” stage, who spend their days behind computers and don robes for meditation and ceremonies). The next youngest peon is ten years younger than I and is energetically complaining about the work load. Meghan, one of my two roommates, said today, “I certainly wouldn’t want my parents to be subjected to this!” She’s thirty-two, and she’s completely worn out, fed up, and pissed off. She didn’t know what she was getting herself into. I had a pretty good idea. It’s harder than I expected, but it’s not a surprise to me, really.

Now that I’ve done it for nearly two weeks, I have decided it’s best for people twenty-five and under. It’s not really a spiritual process. Sure, people say, “Work is part of our practice.” But the truth is that work is all of the practice, for those at the bottom of the hierarchy. There’s nothing more. It’s work, it’s hard work, it’s more work than the workers can competently sustain. There is stress in the zen center: we have to get the rooms ready for the people who are arriving to stay in them today. We have to get the food cooked, the dishes washed, and the floors and toilets swabbed down, or everyone here would be floating in their own garbage. Alberto put in an extra half hour getting the guest house ready today, and he’s a professional. His job, before he came here, was in housekeeping at a hotel. So he’s efficient, and he’s quick, and still he didn’t finish in the allotted time. (He’s in his late thirties, born in Argentina, grew up in Uruguay; he writes science fiction stories in Spanish, but he hasn’t been able to find a translator or a publisher yet.) Every guest bed in the place is turning over tonight. People get petty. It’s part of the territory. “Fold the blankets this way.” “Stack the bowls this way.” “Don’t put the teaspoons close to the soup spoons, or people will get them mixed up.”

We’re cogs in the wheel that sustains these places, and I’m glad there is something that sustains them. I’m glad there are such places, and they have a way to keep themselves going. For kids who’ve dropped out of college or haven’t yet found their passion, it’s a good place to pause, do a little physical labor to sublimate the wild hormones, and think about what to do with themselves. The nineteen-year-old girl who was sitting at the computer next to me just stood up and groaned, holding her back, “Ohhhh, I’m tired.” It makes me laugh. This is no country for old women. Nor for old men either.

Green Gulch is physically beautiful. The gulch itself and the gardens are incredibly gorgeous, and the people have done what they can to preserve and protect the land they live on. I have to give them that. But the community has a coldness to it, a kind of tight-lipped, grim, hard-ass, closed feeling. When people gather at the work circle in the morning, nobody smiles. People ask for things: I need a ride here, I’d like some cough medicine if anybody’s going to town, I need someone to volunteer to take minutes at the meeting. Nobody steps forward. Nobody volunteers. There’s an uncomfortable silence, and then the next person asks for what they want, and they don’t get it either. That’s my perception. Maybe it’s the size (50 or so people and 20 or so guests at any given time). Maybe it’s the fact that they’ve been here for nearly 30 years and have seen so many people come and go, they just don’t give a shit till someone makes a commitment and invests enough to make them notice. A week is nothing. I get the feeling that longer-term residents don’t want to invest any more energy in new people than is absolutely necessary to tell them what to do. They’ve probably told their stories so many times that even they are bored hearing them. They’ve probably hoped that some people would come back who didn’t come back; and they’ve probably hoped some wouldn’t come back who did. So they’ve quit hoping. That’s Zen, too. They have found ways to set boundaries for themselves. They don’t make eye-contact. They don’t say any more than they have to. They retreat into silence as they work, and they expect others to do the same. Overall, it feels glum to me.

The other day when I was weeding with three other “guest students,” a gentle, quiet woman named Carolyn, who seemed to be in charge of the plant sale place, smiled at us and said something like, “Good job, you all! That looks much better.” I got tears in my eyes. It was a shock to hear that much warmth, that many words. A little praise. I don’t see people laugh. I don’t see anybody touch anybody, even in play. I don’t see play. There’s a barren, toneless feeling. A kind of sourness. That isn’t what I had imagined, but then, the reason for making the trip was to find out for myself. I think that probably the guests who pay good money have quite a different experience. For one thing, we dogsbodies do speak to the guests; we socialize with them at meals, and we smile at them. Somebody sets out fresh arrangements of flowers all over the place. There are deer wandering around the grounds, and partridges. In a setting of this much beauty, if I weren’t working myself blind and dumb, I’d probably be very happy.

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-22 responses to “Everybody is a hoe”

  1. Dave says:

    I don`t know you because I have never met you and I don`t know about zen meditation centers because I have never been to one. But I know you through your blog and everything you write just quakes with life…..I don`t know how you could keep still during all that meditation. I don`t know how you could keep quiet at dinner time. Now, I know there is beauty in the contemplative life. But damn, weren`t you about to burst? I think you have too many stories to tell and too many new stories to create.

  2. Jade says:

    Hooray to you for breakng free of that dour, gloomy place! And perhaps for finding the wisdom only your time there can give? We have very different experiences of “formal” Zen, though not so in the struggles with the self that come with it.

    I am Filipino (and so nominally Catholic) but my mother is of Chinese ancestry. I’ve been in the neighborhood of Buddhism pracically all my life but I have only fairly recently felt drawn to seeking “formal” instruction in Zen.

    I am tremendously lucky that it has been wonderful so far. I have met with only vibrant, embracing, joyful, unafraid teaching. It is very secular, with no strict hierarchies, no robes, no stringent rules, and all work is distributed equally–whether teacher, newbie or experienced students. People are of all shapes, shades, smells, faiths, beliefs and sizes and able to express them. And the community is warm, caring and involved.

    There is a former political prisoner who refused do the bows for the first couple of years of practice because he thought it was feudal; and another who came in a go-go girl outfit; and one who was so anti-social she didn’t speak to anyone in the sangha for a couple of years, or another who would disappear for months after takinf offense or being embarrassed at some incident which eventually took the person 10 years to work through. Something kept them coming back and they were always welcome and never banished from anything.

    It is not heaven on earth and I wouldn’t know a saint if I met one but it is very Zen as I know Zen to be. Certainly there is no separation between the life in full spectrum color that you so miss there and the “equanimity” of Zen.

    As in some of my posts, I presume to have some insight on the matter of form because it has been an unexpected gem in my practice. First of all, the stream of Zen I found merges the sitting of Soto and the koan instruction of Rinzai; and, I am a willing student to an amazing teacher (a Catholic nun of all things whose very first lesson was that I didn’t need her). Both are crucial matters of form I think, and shapes the “quality” of the transmission of the teaching.

    I am also, by the way, half your age and I would be so lucky if I gain half the wisdom I see in these pages.



  3. admin says:

    Oh, I HUG you both! Thank you for making the journey with me, for cheering me on, and for understanding. Dave, you always give me a boost, and I really needed one today. I can sit in meditation for many hours and keep silence too, but I can’t suppress the life that is in me nor the joy that I want to make with life. I need to make noise sometimes. It’s not really a dour, gloomy place, Jade. It’s a beautiful place. It’s just…well…not right for me. Lucky you to encounter such a teacher as you have found! I want that Sangha!

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