Mom's Chicken Broth

Today, I stand at the stove stirring this month’s batch of chicken broth. The smell permeates the nostrils, filling the entire house, so that a person entering through the front door is hit with the unmistakable sweet “this will make you feel better” smell of chicken soup.

Bones saved from a month’s worth of roasted chicken served at dinners when the chicken was whole and brown with crispy skin dripping succulent aromas. When there was still plenty enough to be asked the question: “white meat or dark?” Bones left on the plates after teeth scraped the last bits of meat or chewed the ends off the leg bone where the cartilage gives way to the sweet marrow buried underneath. I think of my mother who would take no portion for herself saying “I’ll chew your bones.” And she did.  Meal by meal I saved in the freezer the bits and pieces left over from each meal, finally ending with the carcass picked clean free of every bit of meat like a vulture meticulously picks and cleans at the carcass on the side of a road or some other place where something just breathed its last.  I save all this, and more.

So familiar this smell. No! More than familiar—going deep into the marrow of my own bones where memories of mothers and mothering mingle.  These bones, falling apart into tiny bits and pieces as I stir and smell, and feel, and remember. I think about what my mother’s bones must now look like all these years later after they were placed to rest in the dark, deep, earth. And what of her screams of childbirth as I emerged from her womb or the tears she shed and caused throughout my life?  I think of my daughters who ask for my chicken broth recipe and smell their own smells of chicken and bones and other things.  And my granddaughters, who just now are taking what’s been handed down and creating their own recipes. All of it and so much more known and unknown. No need to fill in the blanks. They, too, are buried there. And what of them now?  I muse how my bones, too, like the bones in the pot, will break into tiny pieces and dissolve. And what of the laughter, the hurts, the tears of joy and sorrow I have borne and have caused in my own mothering? What becomes of all these, too, when it’s too late to say all that wanted to be said, all that needed to be forgiven. When what I call “me” blends into the dark, deep soup?

Hearing the Cries Near and Afar

A Zen koan invites, “Stop the sound of the distant temple bell.” The usual focus of this koan asks the student to show how to stop a bell that, in our usual way of thinking, is far out of our reach. However, for the purposes of this discussion, I would like to focus on the hearing and listening of the bell itself. We cannot stop the sound of the bell unless we hear it, and we can’t hear it unless we put forth the effort to train our hearts, minds and ears to listen. In the same way, we cannot take wise action until we put forth the effort to listen carefully. Not so easy to do in this loud and shouting world of ours! What bells do you hear? How do you respond?

The bells that call us to action come in all forms—a baby crying in the middle of the night, the alarm that wakes us up to get ready to go to work or to meditation, a suspicious lump under the arm. Bells, when heeded, set wheels into action. They summon us to gather energy and make effort—placing our feet on the cold floor, dialing the doctor’s number to make an appointment. Sometimes, we just answer the alarm to wake up and get moving, and we don’t necessarily know where we’ll end up. It’s an invitation that we choose to accept. And if this type of effort stems from wise action, then it is an essential element of deep hope.

There are many bells in the world ringing for us every second of the day. Some are ringing the sound of screaming babies as bombs fall on their rooftops. Some are ringing the sound of shivers as a man huddles into a corner of a building in our neighborhood, trying to escape the cold rain. Some are ringing the hate-filled shouts of extremists and so on. Do we hear those bells? Make no mistake, no matter how much we meditate, unless we are striving to open our ears and sound the bell wisely, we are not truly on the path.

Adapted From Deep Hope: Zen Guidance for Staying Steadfast When the World Seems Hopeless

Bullseye

A renowned master of archery was participating with other teachers in a demonstration to students on the art of archery. The students and teachers were gathered atop a large bluff overlooking the ocean below. After each of the teachers demonstrated how to release the arrow so that it found its way to the center of the bullseye, the master stepped to the center of the field, turned with his back to the cliff, strung the arrow, lifted his bow and released the arrow into the sky above him. As it landed in the ocean far below, he exclaimed, “Bullseye!”

Listen to another version of this story and a teaching on how we can all easily find the bullseyes in our lives. Just click “Dharma Talks” on the home page and go to my newly posted audio dharma talk: “Living in the Bullseye.”

Blessings,

Diane Eshin

Building Our Walls

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast,

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down…”

Mending Wall, by Robert Frost

         With all the talk about walls these days, I’m reflecting once more on the words of Frost’s poem. The current discussion, of course, is focused on the physical wall, the cost, the construction and so forth, but in the spirit of deeper inquiry, Frost’s, poem invites us to take a much deeper look at what truly constructs whatever walls we build and to question how it begins with ourself.

         In fact, much of our activity in life is devoted to constructing and trying to maintain an imagined separation between the way we think our life should be and our life as it is.   We erect walls placing ourselves on one side and the rest of the world on the other. This boundary serves as a sort of control between all that we believe threatening or would rather not acknowledge in the outside world and all that we believe safe in our self-contained inner territory. From behind the wall, we believe we have a firm, safe  grip on life. 

         For each of us, our wall looks different, but any boundary only serves our misguided  belief that we are lords of our own territory, that we can be separate, that we can control life by walling out whatever appears threatening or painful and walling  in comfort and security.  Our walls take many forms. We may try to live our life behind the fence of complete independence, never asking for help from others, even when we need it.   Perhaps most of our mental activity is spent planning ahead  or worrying,  keeping  the unexpected at bay by imagining ourselves one step ahead of competition in our job, our child’s future,  our retirement, our partner’s next move.  We may avoid showing anger or hurt, walling out our feelings from others and perhaps from ourselves.  Taking the victim stance, we hold in the past and wall out forgiveness.  Holding fast to righteous views, maintaining rigid positions, judging others as well as ourselves,  we deny the frailty and fallibility of the human condition.  Regardless of its outward appearance, the function of the wall is separation. As long as we believe, with the farmer in Robert Frost’s poem, that “good fences make good neighbors,” we’ll never really know our neighbors or ourselves. We’ll never know freedom. But luckily, no matter how hard we try to keep our walls erected, there’s “Something that doesn’t love a wall,” that sends them toppling.  The wall of righteous perfection is toppled by a simple error, showing us less than perfect.  Holding fast to our opinions about the way  we believe events should go turns into sulking or perhaps rage when someone disagrees with us or does things differently.  A life-threatening illness shatters our meticulous planning for the future.  Life will not let us stay hidden behind our walls. It will topple them over and over, and each time this happens, our defenses, our separation,  our sense of inner and outer falls with them. If only for a moment, we have the opportunity to see our life as it is. 

         The opportunity life offers us is to turn and face the open gap left by the fallen boulders.  Rather than quickly looking for something to fill the hole, we can allow ourselves a little time to be in that open, seemingly very vulnerable place.  For a few seconds, minutes or whatever, just awareness. Just hurt, terror, grief, rage. Just clenched teeth, contracted belly, heavy chest.  We cannot topple the wall;  the events of life do that for us.  But we can decide that we will live a life in which we come to know the boulders with which we construct our barriers and to allow ourselves, over and over, to witness the gaps. Slowly, we become intimate with every rock, every pebble and with time, we come to understand that our lives are the boulders and the gaps, that there is no-thing to wall in or out.