Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Now and Zen

As we know, wondrous things can occur in our own backyard, and it’s true that wherever we are we take ourselves with us. Still, experiences in travel to foreign lands hold special value and would not necessarily have occurred at home. Such, it would appear, is true of my trip to Taipei, Taiwan, in 1984. I had had magical things happen in my life, but this one is close to the top. What began as a gig doing voiceover for a Chinese teacher living in Seattle who was creating English tapes for her students in Taipei led to three rich months across the ocean teaching young Chinese students in person – as well as being taught.

It began when, in addition to the voiceover work, I was also doing some video editing with another of the “voices.” One day when he and I were in the editing suite, I excused myself to make a phone call to my landlord to let him know that I and my 11-year-old daughter would be leaving our apartment at the end of the month. I had been feeling it was time to move, but I hadn’t made the call; I felt a strong impulse to do so at just that moment, even though I had no idea about where we would be living next. (Yes, I tend to live on the edge.)

When I returned to the editing suite, my cohort announced that Ruth, the producer of the English-teaching tapes, had offered him a job in her school in Taipei for the summer, and he could take his little boy – but he wasn’t able to leave other responsibilities. “Wow,” I thought, “maybe that’s where we’ll be for the next little bit!” The journey had begun.

It took some talking, but I finally convinced Ruth that Rachel and I would be a positive addition to her staff there. While Ruth was friendly, she was also very careful. She did repay the tickets once we arrived there (and immediately on landing, I might add), and even took us on a tour of the southern part of Taiwan before we began work, which was a special treat, but held our return tickets until it was time to leave. Did I mind? Hardly. I wasn’t planning to leave anyway, so it wasn’t an issue. I was open to whatever this journey would bring.

While there were many adventures there, simple and complex, which still resonate in me, one that stands out had to do with my desire to study with a Zen master since, after all, I was close to where such practice began. But I hadn’t actually sought one out.

One beautiful Sunday, Rachel and I were at a nearby park, which was a common destination on a day off for anyone living in this teeming city. It was a very warm afternoon, with a little wind, so after sitting for a while, I left Rachel flying kites while I walked to the ice cream stand. On the way back, I passed a man walking in the opposite direction holding short bamboo sticks, two in each hand, with which he was clicking out a beat. I smiled and walked to his beat a bit. He was short, with shaved head, slight build, a mischievous smile, and simply dressed in khaki pants and shirt.

After I returned to my bench, I noticed him a short distance away entertaining a group of kids, and since I wanted to document everything I could on film, I walked over to him with my 35 mm. With touristy sign language, I indicated that I would love a photo of him, and he duly posed.
Then he walked toward me and handed me his bamboo sticks, with the obvious invitation to “play the sticks.” I tried, but needless to say I did not have the mastery, and by this time I was laughing along with the kids who were practically falling down in hysterics. When I handed the sticks back to him, he proceeded to hold them to his heart and sing, in virtually operatic tones, a song to me in his native language. I stood motionless in awe and appreciation, and at the end thanked him with a bow and a smile.

Later, he came over to where I was sitting and had something for me. He dropped a handful of white, fragrant blossoms into my open palm, and gave me a book of songs, handwritten in Taiwanese. He also gave me his business card with the Chinese side up. I turned it over -- it said “Zen Master.”

That week I had the photos developed and the next Sunday found him again in the park to give him prints as a thank you for letting me take his picture. I watched him for a while in his interactions with the people around him. Again, as was obvious the week before, I saw his combination of play and sing. He was in total glee as he relentlessly teased a pet monkey on a leash that was sitting on the shoulder of an elderly gentleman. In the next moment he was standing beneath a baobob tree, singing in his serious operatic style to the accompaniment of a classic single-stringed instrument played by a focused and very peaceful younger musician. A crowd had gathered.

I was grateful: I had, however briefly, studied with a Zen master. With the park as the “temple,” as indeed anywhere in the world could be, his unspoken message of “life is improv” stays with me: “Now and Zen, play and sing,” a live teaching he so easily shares with other perfect strangers in the park.

Anita M. Coolidge

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Well, as my first ever blog, I would like to explain the reason for my blog title. In the mid-'80s I was introduced to breath work and rebirthing, a process based on a way of breathing that at once relaxes and reveals what we have stored in our subconscious. So, not only can we speak words because our breath moves our vocal cords, but the breathing creates an awareness in us that can bring forth thoughts that, of course, are sets of words.

Okay, on to the winged part.... Also way back 20 or so years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ken Carey who had written "Return of the Bird Tribes," a piece about how native tribes, especially in the northeast part of our continent, carried out practices that created peace between different groups. Carey is saying that there are a few of us humans who have come back with that as a goal and value. Made sense to me. And since I always have loved birds and feathers -- their beauty, their smarts, the incredible variety -- hmm, okay, I'm there. If you'll bear with me, I will share some brief but memorable sketches of my bird encounters:

* * *

During the revival of street trees along the busy boulevard at the top of Capitol Hill in Seattle that is Broadway, I recall my delight that the city was greening an intensely commercial area, and that the best part of all was that it was now possible to not only have cleaner air, hear the musical rustle of the leaves in the breeze, but -- most importantly -- come eyeball-to-eyeball with -- a sparrow!

The Quetzalcoatl, the colorful bird of Mexico, exists in my mind as more myth than reality, though it is replicated in ultra-colorful large macaws. Whenever I come across such a feather, I truly feel blessed.

* * *

Before I left Seattle to transplant myself to southern California, I was given a large mandala made out of feathers, an etheric shield of sorts, by a member of the Native American-led spiritual meditation group I was a part of. For the move, I carefully boxed it up in an oversize, thin carton that accommodated its two-foot “wing span.” For three years, it remained boxed while I became acclimated to my new environment; we don’t want to rush into these things, after all.

When I finally made the move to the Los Angeles area from San Diego, finding Malibu as home, I had forgotten what was in that odd-shaped box, but amazingly it had a pulse, a life of its own that made it stand out from all the rest of the boxes that had been in storage for so long. The feather shield practically spoke to me like an old and good friend when I lifted it carefully out of its container. Even without the feathers inside, the box itself seemed to have life and light in it. I was amazed.

* * *

I was first brought to Malibu to housesit for friends I had known 25 years earlier in Seattle when we had met as houseboat neighbors. Their Malibu house was in the middle of what had been a large ranch and now was being gradually subdivided. Still, there were wide open spaces. A long drive lined by trees led up to the walled compound. On my first night there, having driven from Hollywood along Sunset all the way to the ocean, and then up Pacific Coast Highway, I was clear that I could stop wondering where I would make a home. Malibu was it.

As I drove through the gate at the end of the drive in the gathering dusk, I saw -- and felt -- a dark form swoop down over the hood of the car. It had to have been an owl. I appreciated the welcome. The next day, when I walked down the drive to water the trees, an owl feather whispered to me from the ground, and of course has found its way into my permanent collection.

* * *

Of course, there is also the chance meeting in Santa Fe one day, the last day of a holiday there (well before my move to Southern California) when a certain tall, friendly Indian approached me as I strolled along the Rio Grande in the quaint town. The affable native asked me how I was, and then interjected that he thought I looked a little sad. I told him I was, indeed, sad since this was my last walk along the river before returning to my home in the Pacific Northwest. He looked at me earnestly and admonished me to please go to see his artist friends in Taos, that I needed to see people in the pueblos. I took it as a deeply insightful and thoughtful gesture, and regretted I didn’t have the time. His friend called to him, and as he left he extended his hand with its long fingers, and introduced himself. “I’m Lee Feather. I’m pleased to meet you.”

* * *

I welcome the thought that, as Ken Carey says, indigenous people see birds as closest to the Creator, here to bring messages and love from above. But besides my personal connection with our feathered friends from early on, I simply reflect on the simple pleasures of bird watching: of seeing a flock of 25 pelicans flying low in formation above the ocean just offshore, effortlessly gliding on updrafts, or gently moving their massive wings almost in unison; or the even more intense scene of perhaps 50 birds, smaller than the pelicans, flying in a cloud, all making their moves in the same direction at the same time (how do they know when to dip and swerve?); or of seeing an entire flock of red-beaked seagulls, standing (on one leg or two) on the sand, all facing into the wind and the setting sun; or in my mind seeing the scene reported by my sister who noticed that a flock of sparrows sitting on a telephone wire had, in the center, a light turquoise parakeet who obviously found freedom and companionship, no doubt oblivious to their genetic differences. Many things to learn from our delicate, beautiful, and gifted feathered friends.

* * *

And then again, perhaps the most affecting experience with a bird image was when a roadrunner appeared as a cloud formation in Seattle’s western sky while I was on a trip north tying up some loose ends after my Swedish aunt’s death. The roadrunner had been her mascot; she had them everywhere. According to Indian legend, roadrunner originally had a colorful tail and plumage, but lost it when the sun god attacked him for retrieving fire for the people. The most astounding thing about the vaporous image in the sky was that for about a minute a small rainbow actually appeared across the tail, an echo of the native legend.

I am convinced that spirit comes to us in many ways, but that birds with their feathers bring something – and mean something – extra special.

Anita M. Coolidge