Sunday, May 25, 2014

Not Zen 112: Parental Neglect

She planned her litter by tending to her nest. Like other alligators, she created divots filled with warm, rotting leaves and sawgrass on one side. She let that arc of her den heat up in the sun. For the other half, she created shade with fresh bladderwort and lily fronds. Those eggs would remain cool and would become her girls.

She tended to her nest for more than two months before the eggs hatched. In that time, she lost a few of the to-be girls to a raccoon. She lost at least three possible boys to a male alligator. The intruder didn't escape a beating - she found him and bit him hard on his snout - but the damage was done.

In the end, she got two male hatchlings and three females from the nest. When they were ready, she opened her mouth and let them climb in. Only the smallest male had any trouble and even he clambered aboard and clung to a tooth. Then with her mighty jaws that had once cracked the skull of a horse, she lifted up her children and walked them toward the water. They leaned out, eyes popped wide, gawking at the wide world they'd never seen.

One of her grown daughters met her near the edge.

"Something's wrong," he daughter said. "Can't you smell it?"

She paused. Her nostrils took in the strange scent from the sea.

Years ago, she had come to this tidal marsh when it was deserted. There were no other alligators, not even a mate. She had dug her home into a riverbank, waited, and hoped. In time, a young male came from upstream, then another. 

She had populated the marsh. It had taken many years of work but the area had grown wide and lush under her control, regrown from the eggs of her body, her children's generation, and lately, a generation of grandchildren.

The air smelled foul today. He eldest daughter was right. It stunk of death. She lay her open jaw down where she was and let her children crawl out. 

They didn't want to come. Their instincts told them to expect water. This area held only scrub, pebbles, and grass. But when she opened and lowered the roof of her mouth a few times, they got the hint. The little male left right away. One of her daughters, the biggest and most assertive, waited resentfully until her mother's jaw tipped and she rolled out. She popped her head up and gazed back at her mother as if to ask what was wrong.

"The smell of dead water gets stronger with every breeze," she hissed. There was no denying it.

"What can we do?"

"Everyone needs to set aside food," she said. Her sense of dread grew. "A red tide is coming."

She had caught scent of a similar tidal incident long ago. She had seen it wipe out all of the life in the mouth of a river. But she had only borne witness to it from a distance. She had never lived through it.

She and her eldest daughter scrambled to send word. To her shock, some of her grown children were already sick. Maybe this red tide was different than the previous one. Alligators were getting a white crust on their noses. Whether they'd eaten fish dying in the red algae bloom or not, whether they lived by the coast or not, they were getting sick. Every time she swam back to her hatchlings, she tried to keep them from going into the water. But there was no help for it. That's where they belonged. They swam in the decay, amidst the bloated bodies of dead trout and dead catfish. 

One by one, her youngest children caught the sickness. Their skins crusted, hard and pale. They grew feverish. They could find no clean water to drink. They had no strength to go search for better water. And they died.

She swam to other nests to help her daughters. But their children, too, were passing away. Half-grown alligators flopped up on sandbars and panted, too sick to move. Full grown males and females fled if they were able.

She watched a male attempt to eat a dead bullfrog but give up. The frogs had been among the first to go. Its body was spoiled beyond what even an adult could stand.

For days, she swam through the red tide. She forgot to warm herself in the morning. She forgot to cool herself in the middle of the day. She gave herself a fever. All she could think to do was to help her grown children battle the tide of death.

When she saw a half-grown alligator lying comatose on the bank of the marsh, she swam over to it and tried to rouse it. But she got no response. It's skin, like those of her children, had gone pale. She nudged it a few times. Then she collapsed.

When she awoke, it was morning. The light had changed. The breeze smelled clear. She felt the presence of a large alligator near her. She turned her head, which was hard, and saw an old, bull male. She knew him from long ago, another early settler of the marsh. Beyond him was another, smaller male, one of her sons. Now that she thought about it, he was also the bull's son.

"I figured you would make it," said the old bull.

"Momma," said her son. "I thought you were dead. You kept helping and helping everybody. You swam everywhere for days. And then you disappeared. And I found you. I thought you were dead."

"Your son is a lot like you," murmured the bull.

"I see." She tried to imagine what it had been like to find her body. It wasn't hard. She'd found many young ones dead and many older ones sick.

"I did the best I could, momma," said her son.

"All your children did," said the bull. "In all the adults of your line, only you fell ill. And when you did, all of our youth perished. It was you who had been holding them together, saving the half-grown."

"I failed."

"You failed only from self-neglect. If you had only taken a moment to care for yourself, only eaten a bit of the fresh food you had scavenged for others, only gone for fresh water once, only rested as you allowed others to rest, many young children would still be here."

"I was afraid to fail them."

"You didn't have to be afraid." The bull sighed. On his other flank, so did her son. "Because you did fail them. And they love you anyway."

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Not Zen 111: The Forgotten Garden

A girl slept to the sound of raindrops on her roof. She woke to silence in the morning. In her stocking feet, she crept to her window. She saw a clear sky outside, cool and blue. As her gaze lowered, she noticed the green bushes at the edge of the lawn and in front of them, budding flowers, pink and yellow.

"Grandma, can I go out?" she called.

She listened for an answer. Other than the songs of the birds in the nearby trees, she heard nothing. She waited a moment, then dressed herself. She could smell moistness in the air. The day felt like it would turn warm, so she chose light clothes and sandals.

A few minutes later, she strolled onto her grandmother's screened-in porch. The painted grey concrete floor of the porch was wet with dew. Her sandals smeared it. She played in it for a moment, drawing patterns. Around the corners of the room, near the screens and wall, lay pieces of a furniture set with waterproof covers in a pattern of green and yellow leaves. The pieces included end tables, chairs, and a long sofa. Underneath one of the end tables, there hid two bags of gardening tools. The girl marched to the table, crouched down, and pulled out a bag. She liked to play with the hand rakes and imagine their claws digging trails in the dirt.

She scraped the rakes and trowels along the concrete floor until her grandmother appeared.

"There you are," the woman said from the door between the house and porch. "Do you want breakfast?"

"Maybe juice." She held up the three-clawed rake. "Grandma, why don't you garden more?"

"There's no point. I never liked it." Her grandmother folded her arms and leaned against the door frame.

"Yes you did."

"No." She shook her head.

"Grandma, you did it all the time! And you were so good." The girl got off of her knees. She marched to the tools she'd left scattered on the floor. She gathered four or five of them in her arms but stopped when she picked up a pair of shears. She used the shears to point to where the garden had once stood. It was now a raised bed of dirt covered by a tarp. "You had tomatoes and radishes and onions and peas and cucumbers and everything. And all around the house you had tulips and lilies and crinkly flowers... and, um, violets ..."

"The violets are weeds. That wasn't really me." Her grandmother stopped leaning against the door frame. She walked to the porch screen nearest to her old garden. Her left hand touched the screen. "None of it was me, really. It was your grandfather's doing, right down to the weeds he let grow in the lawn. He loved to garden."

"But ..." Her face scrunched tight in frustration. "I saw you doing it."

"I loved doing things with him." Her grandmother pulled her hands close to her chest. "I would have done anything he wanted just to be by his side. Anything. He loved to make things grow. I was proud of the way he tended to the plants and animals. Working next to him gave me a great feeling."

"Does working beside someone feel nice?" Her friends didn't like to work or make things. "Why?"

"I don't know. That's a good question." Her grandmother stood and stared at her forgotten garden for a long time before she answered. "I suppose it's just the way people are. We're social creatures, even the ones of us who feel solitary. We might prefer to work in silence but still, there's something special about solving problems side by side. It needs no words. But it connects us to our humanity. Without it, we're not completely in touch with ourselves."

The girl watched her grandmother's gaze return to the covered garden bed.

"Do you miss digging in the dirt, grandma?"

"I miss my partner," her grandmother whispered.

The girl put her tools into the garden bucket. From them, she choose the hand trowel with the red handle, her favorite.

"Grandma, am I good? Do you like me?" She walked up next to her grandmother's hips. Her grandmother, in surprise, looked down and blinked.

"What a question!" Her hands swooped under her granddaughter's armpits. She lifted. With a grunt of effort and a look of surprise, she held the girl close. "You're an angel. Of course I love you."

The girl waved her trowel. "Will you garden with me?"

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Not Zen 110: Boldness

They sat in a light-grey office amidst many other offices. The chairs were expensive, textured, and ergonomic. The office occupied a corner of the building. Natural light shone into it through the windows. The editor of the company newsletter opened her notebook as she took her seat. She rested her hands in her lap while she waited for the vice-president to shut his door. He didn't. He strolled to his desk.

It was her job to interview her recently-hired executive. She'd brought a list of her usual questions about business experience.

"What is it that makes you successful?" She read the top question from the first page of her notebook.

"Love," he replied. He hardly looked up from his desk to answer.

"No, I mean in business." Her hand fluttered. "As a leader."

"Love," he repeated. He looked at her directly. "Without love for other people, I would never have been bold enough or forceful enough to achieve anything."

"That's, um ..." She tried to be tactful. "That's not what people are expecting. What about courage? Your last company was a factory. You stayed when the other executives fled. You turned the place around after it had been robbed ... I won't use that word in print but it was robbed, essentially, by the former leadership. It took courage to stay."

"It was courage that came from love. The folks staying on were the ones who made the company successful. They weren't the ones who nearly wrecked it. I knew where my loyalties should lie."

"That's what I mean. Courage." She scribbled notes furiously.

”If you like. The answer is still love, really," he insisted. "Without love for my wife, I would never have gone out to look for a new job. Without the love to support my children, I wouldn't have changed careers to the factory, demanded raises, or applied for leadership positions. I never wanted any of those things before. It was only when I had others in mind that I went out to change the world a little."

The editor said, "I don't think that's how it works in the minds of our other executives."

"Maybe they don't talk about it that way," he conceded.

"I'm pretty sure I'm not allowed to write in our newsletter that love drives good business. What would the other leaders think?"

"Every business is about people. If the other directors aren't happy that I care for others, I might as well know."

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Not Zen 109: Ordinary Achievement

A grandmother sat on her front porch drinking iced tea with her grandson. The sun hung low in the sky. The air had settled, still and hot. Flies buzzed in the shade of the porch. The family housecat slept in the corner. Every now and then, its ears twitched at a fly.

The grandson put his glass down. He gathered his arms around his knees.

"You say there's a natural flow of events and I should look for it." He nodded as he spoke. "But I've got to do more. I have to act. Everyone does. You say 'so act naturally.' But don't you see that's crazy?"

She titled her head.

"Lots of bad things are 'natural,'" he continued. "Sickness is natural. Ignorance is natural. I want to work towards sainthood, enlightenment, salvation. Something special. I want to achieve something. Those things aren't natural. They're paths to being the best I can be."

"Striving is ..." She started to say 'natural,' her grandson could tell. She paused to lick her lips.

"Do you understand what I'm talking about?" he continued. "I mean, you're the most at peace of anyone I know. And the nicest. You're almost a saint."

"You should have known your grandfather. There was a saint."

"Listen to yourself. Do you remember what it was like to have to try to be good, to really wrestle with bad temptations, or is it all just natural to you now?"

"This is a good moment," she said quietly.

"It's always a good moment to you."

She picked up the cane that lay next to her chair. With it, she pointed to a branch in the tree in front of them. There, in the crook of the branch, rested a nest built by bluefinches. A hatchling poked its head above the lip of it. The chick raised its beak to beg for food from its absent parents. It fluttered its wings.

"Does a bluefinch understand how to fly?" she asked. "If it could speak, would it talk of the struggle to understand the methods? Or does it merely achieve?"

"Flight is normal for birds," the boy answered without hesitation. "When they get to a certain age, all of them can do it."

"Enlightenment more natural for people than you think. Everyone can achieve it."

"How?"

"You're on your own for that part, like a bluefinch when it learns to fly. I'm sorry. Just because I've achieved something doesn't mean I understand it. And even if I understood, I couldn't give you the power to fly."

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Not Even Not Zen 2: About

Some of these entries come from an archive originally written for my own exploration, for my friends, and for my children.  The archive represented thirty years of my life and uneven writing.  Months ago, during the writing and posting of these stories I ran out of my backlog of short material.

All of the last few dozen are new.  Many others are, too, because the archive of material didn't come to an abrupt end.  Stories inspire other stories.  I've been writing fresh parables to clarify my thoughts.  I've responded to the requests of others.

I have a backlog of lesser stories.  I'm not going to share them.  You may think some of the published ones are bad but the other old ones are worse.

For now, I'm going to keep pace with a parable per week.  When I set out on this project, I didn't think I could do that as full-time worker and parent.  But writing a short story every week is a decent habit that I've  made.  It's been two years.  For meditating, writing, and thinking about things, they've been nice years.