Sunday, December 21, 2014

Not Zen 141: Logos

He spent the holiday with his older sister and her family. In his first decade as a university professor, he'd had no time to start a family of his own. Instead he'd concentrated on his teaching, publishing, and achieving tenure - a satisfying event. But the university had come to feel claustrophobic in the past year. The visit promised to be an escape from academia.

He'd always loved his sister, a gentle soul, but she'd chosen to live on a farm. He found that he didn't like the roughness of his sister's husband or her children. He didn't care for the lewd sense of humor she'd picked up. What had seemed to be a simple, ideal existence from afar looked noisy and complex from inside her home. And outside her house, there sat rural squalor. The area went unnamed, deservedly so in his opinion. It held eight or nine houses together if, by together, one meant quite far apart but within the sight of a careful observer.

The gravel road and dirt paths looked traversable for a man determined to hike. He excused himself from breakfast.

"I'll go for a walk in the morning air," he announced.

His sister and her husband exchanged glances. The corner of her lips turned up.

"There isn't much to see," she warned.

"Sounds fine to me."

He closed the door gently, wondering if he could have handled that better. But as soon as he was alone, he more at ease. The sounds of the home faded in the gentle wind. The sky lay overcast, the sun a greyish-white glow to the east. He thought it was fortunate that the breeze wasn't too harsh. The morning felt brisk enough already. Frost lay on the grass and on the thinnest branches of the trees. Wisps of vapor trailed from his mouth as he slogged up the trail.

His shoes twisted in ruts of frozen mud. The ground felt unforgiving. Undoubtedly, he would be sore if he hiked far.

In time, he spotted a grain silo in the distance. There was a house beside it, much less impressive than the silo. Even from afar, he could tell the sides of the home needed paint. Patches of it had peeled away.

As he grew close enough to see the frozen garden in front, the lumps of leaves not cleared, the ivy sprawled along the front yard in a patient battle with the grass, a boy burst out the front door. He ran, wailing, into the yard. He couldn't have been more than eight or nine. He continued to cry and swing his bare arms.

The child looked half dressed. He wore boots and heavy pants but his shirt had no sleeves. The material looked stained and ripped like a castoff undershirt. Blue and black bruises, small ones, decorated the young fellow's body, a dozen or so in total. There were more on his left arm than his right. A larger bruise swelled on his left cheek.

The professor raised his hand to speak. He was close enough to shout something. But what would he say? The boy continued to rage, cry, and shudder with every breath, although whether his body shivered from the cold or from emotion, it was hard to tell. Finally, the boy grabbed a stick.

The professor stopped. He put down his hand.

The boy stalked, cudgel in hand, to what had seemed to be a lump of leaves next to the garden. It was a dog. The animal showed no fear. It rose in greeting and walked to the end of its short chain. The stake for the chain had been pounded into the soil at the corner of the garden.

The boy screamed something. He hit the dog.

The beast wuffed and backed up. But the child pursued. There was no easy escape. The professor stood frozen in horror, then anger. Finally, when a yelp from the dog sounded like it had taken a mortal blow, he rushed forward. He almost fell along the way. There were ruts in the road and in the yard. But he closed the gap. He leaped between the child and his dog.

The boy screamed at him, furious. It was an anger without words. Fortunately, the lad didn't swing. The stick in his hand looked lethal when seen up close.

"Stop. Please stop," the professor said. He put up his hands.

The boy stopped yelling. He panted.

They stood, staring at each other for a moment. The professor heard the dog whine behind him. He studied the bruise on the boy's face. It was a bloody one. Carefully, he crouched and extended his arms. He startled himself with the gesture. He was hugging the boy before he thought about it.

"What? Hey!" The boy pushed away but he did so with a gentle touch. "Why are you being nice?"

"I don't know." He felt bewildered. "You were beating the dog. I was mad. But then you seemed sad. I couldn't stay angry."

"I've never seen you before."

"No, I'm just visiting." He rose to his feet. How could he explain his position to someone so young? "I'm a teacher at a university."

"Why aren't you angry, then? Everyone else is."

His mind spun for a moment with all of the logic he used every day. Obviously, he could point out that not everyone was angry. But maybe less confrontational approach would be better. He thought back on his recent lectures and the reactions of his students.

"There's a greek word, logos," he said. He pronounced the word carefully and watched the boy's face for a reaction. "It stands for logic and also for spirit. It's way that people are joined together."

"So it's like a soul, then." The lad seemed unimpressed.

The professor always told his students, 'No, not like that,' but he didn't think an admonishment would go over well.

"It's more like the secret connection between souls."

"Oh." The lad sniffled. He wiped his nose on his bare forearm. "Is that how it works? Is all our stuff connected? Then that's why I get sad and angry when someone else is sad and angry."

"Yes, I think so. Like that." He turned his attention to the bruises. His fingers reached for one but he pulled back without touching. "Is your father here?"

"Not for years. Don't remember him."

"Oh." That shattered the notions that were started to take shape in his mind. "Well, why are you so bruised? Where's your coat?"

The boy glanced to his left, toward his house. He opened his mouth to speak but stopped. Then he gazed down at his feet and started to cry.

The professor turned. The house looked mundane and unimposing. There was no one at the front door. He spotted a face in the window, a woman. Her visage seemed marred by an enraged expression. Then she was gone. She'd noticed him looking and moved away. He watched the darkened pane of glass for half a minute in the hope that she might come back. He half-wished and half-feared she would come to the door.

In time, the dog crept up next to him. The beast rubbed its shaggy body against him, as if for the warmth. Next, it approached the boy, who had fallen quiet. It licked the boy's face.

The boy's hand fell to the mutt's neck. He didn't push it away.

"What a nice dog you have," he professor said. "He forgives you."

"Hey." The boy brought up his left hand to shield his face from the animal's tongue. He'd stopped crying, perhaps from annoyance.

"Dogs must have the logos stuff too," he boy announced. "Because he's connected. See?"

The professor raised a finger. He started to say no, that only humans had the connective spirit, but he closed his eyes and looked inward to his definitions. He saw himself in the classroom, giving his speech about the greek logos. It always ended with students debating one another about its existence. The professor sided with the doubters. Most of the time, there seemed to be no real connection between any people at all. There didn't even seem to be pervasive logic that people followed. But then he opened his eyes and looked at the dog. The ancients had believed in the connections between other creatures and that those tendrils of spirit extended throughout all of nature. In ten years of teaching the subject, he'd never taught that part.

"Why are you crying?" asked the boy.

"What? I'm not." He wiped his eye. A chuckle escaped him although it felt forced. He patted the dog. It kept trying to lick the boy. "This dog of yours is just amazing."


  1. I've been trying for a while to figure out what to say to this Koan of yours and what I keep coming up with is that, we as individuals feel that we are so alone, each in our own suffering...but the truth is that there are so many like us that feel the same pains...we are never alone. We are always connected to something bigger then ourselves. Even if one doesn't believe in God and the spirit that permeates all things, there is this underlying connection that allows us to feel supported by another. Love, friendship, kindness, forgiveness and understanding are just some of the ways that we can uplift each other to not feel so alone and the dog did for the little boy.

  2. This was an emotional story to write. The main issue it addresses is connectedness but with an eye to how people lose track of one another.

    I think that, as people attain richer, more insular lives, this could rise up further as a social problem. Upper classes can feel more disconnected from the poor, professionals can feel an inability to relate to other professions, hobbyists may have trouble reaching outside of their close-knit groups, and everyone staying inside too much can lose a sense of connection with the environment. It takes attention to our surroundings to nuture our sense of connection.