Zen Center Retreat – Day 1, Arrival

The flight from Kalamazoo to Chicago only takes 30 minutes. I’ve never flown in a plane so small. Walking down the aisle to reach my seat is an effort of contortion, but the one long row of seats on my side is comfortable in its elbow-roominess. A 6:00am flight is beautiful in September. The darkness is different in pre-dawn hours than it is after sundown. There is an awakening to it, like those energy efficient light-bulbs that take a few minutes to achieve their brightness.

As we near Chicago, I see the dense cluster of the downtown skyscrapers jutting out of the flat Illinois landscape like a small, man-made mountain, one errant foothill kicked out into the water. It looks like its made of Legos from this height. The lights are mesmerizing, and I feel the pride of a race capable of building mile high structures and metal air-buses; a feeling that wars with the uncertainty of the those very ideas. Why do we need buildings so tall? At what cost do we build such a monument when there are people suffering a mile away in abject poverty? Do we need to suck energy from the planet, like a hog guzzling feed, simply to light up our skies 24 hours a day? I don’t have the answers to these questions, though I am leaning towards ‘no.’

We land as the sun rises, reminding me of nature’s glory over ours. I’ve always enjoyed walking through O’Hare. No where is there a greater mix of faces, races, ideas, creeds. I am at turns disgusted and amazed. The charred smell of meat hits my nose as I pass a food court, and while I know better, I enjoy the smell. I stand in a Starbucks line, watching the dead-eyed team of baristas churn out cup after cup of sugar-coffee and wonder why we let ourselves live in these jobs that we hate, and why people who love us allow it.

I people-watch as I walk the corridors. My laptop bag is too heavy in my insistence to bring both the cast iron brick of a computer as well as several trees worth of books. I observe the tropes of an airport. There seem to be three distinct groups. I belong to the solo traveler caste, he who drifts through the crowd faster than any other, no obligation but his bag and his ticket. The group I wish I belonged to is the couples, the teams of traveling adventurers, often hand in hand, supporting one another usually, at other times causing one another grief. My own adventure buddy is at home, and there is sadness in me for leaving her behind, but we both know this trip will be a positive experience, and she couldn’t have come anyway.

The third group is one I’ll someday join; the families. These are the harangued, the rushed, the eyes constantly taking stock of the number in their group. These are the young parents who likely watched Home Alone as a kid and have had nightmares about leaving their children in an airport bathroom ever since. These are the travelers whom I most question, curious what motivates them to take such risks: distant relations? the need to travel even with kids strapped to them every which way, like soldiers armed for war? the sense that their babies need to see the world before they can even see the world?

I sit to wait for the boarding and pull out a book of short stories by James Baldwin, a black, 20th century author who writes with a viewpoint and suffering I’ll never know. The sobering realization that I’ll never know what it’s like to be black in the middle of the century is offset by the resonance I feel reading his words. Each story in this collection is better than the last, and I envy his ability to switch genres and viewpoints without losing the timbre of his unique voice. Thankfully, I understand that jealousy is not defeat but motivation, and I try to learn what I can from Mr. Baldwin.

We board, and I am once more reminded that airplane seats were not designed for tall men as I stuff myself in with the elegance of a clown squeezing into a tiny car. There is a small woman in the middle seat, and as we take off, she is repeatedly falling asleep, her head bobbing up and down at random intervals like one of those toy birds full of water. Her fight with both gravity and drowsiness makes me smile.

I continue devouring Baldwin, pausing now and then to think on the upcoming week. I had not planned to visit a meditation center. I have yet to master sitting for 30 minutes at GilChrist for the daily session, nor have I made much effort to participate. Things seemed to align, however, and so I signed up for this work-week at Green Gulch Farm, unwilling to push aside the signals of fate. The meditation times are offset by days of outdoor work, the center is less than five miles from the redwood grove, Muir Woods (which was the original intent of investigating this area), and a friend told me she was staying in San Franciso that same week and that I could crash in her hotel for my final night. Redwoods, permaculture, and a new city, all wrapped up in a Japanese bundle. I am not a man who ignores the signposts placed in front of him (at least not anymore).

We fly in to the city through a cloud. I don’t even see San Francisco until we are skidding on to the runway, and the view is water and airport. There is a bumping as the plant lands and the nervous laughter of people who are secretly glad to be alive as the reality momentarily hits them that they’ve just hurtled a thousand miles through the air at ten to twenty thousand feet. An old man nearby makes a joke about speed bumps.

This airport is another airport, though I’ll admit the restaurants seem classier. I find my bag, catch a bus to Marin, and try to enjoy the ride through the city. The drivers chooses a route that is not scenic, and I see mostly white stucco buildings zip past, their sameness slightly depressing. At some point the scenery changes and we come to rows of brightly colored houses, all stacked up next to each other like a long box of crayons. Then we come to the Bridge.

Golden Gate is popular on September 11th, and not only with the weirdos jogging across it. I see crowds milling about all along its length, most of them Asian tourists, and a sizable group standing on some kind of overlook spot. The bridge itself is a marvel, and it is my complete ignorance of engineering that makes me question the massive steel cables winding across each side like the velvet ropes of a movie theater. Are they keeping something out? I assume sea monsters is the answer, and I am thankful for the precaution.

We cross the wonder and enter Redwood Highway, which excites me until it becomes clear there are no redwoods yet. Perhaps they show up later along the route, but I am unceremoniously dumped in the middle of a freeway intersection with a hungry belly and five miles to go.

I find a busy diner after walking for ten minutes with my luggage, wolf down a mediocre tofu scramble and an overpriced pale ale, then virtually hail an Uber. The trip is only five miles, but it is the windiest road I’ve ever been on. There are cyclists around each corner, their suicide notes pinned to slick yellow chests, and each time the driver turns the wheel I see all of us plunging over the side of the cliff into the valley below. Any thought I had of hiking from the farm to the redwood forest is tossed overboard. I can’t be throwing my life away like that.

When we reach the farm, I can hear the vexation in the driver’s accented voice. What should have been a simple ten minute trip turned into a hellish snake drive, and while his ability impressed me, I’m not sure he realized what he agreed to for sixteen bucks.

The farm is set into a valley, thus the name Green Gulch, and is basically Rivendell. It’s about the most charming mixture of hippie California and Kyoto Japan that even I could have dreamed. There is a zen meditation room, a welcome center full of things I want to buy, acres of vegetables and flowers growing, a completely authentic Japanese tea house (more on this later), and some of the most epic trees I’ve ever seen. I’m positive my tree awe will only increase as they week draws on, but my trip is already justified. I have arrived.

Day 1.2
Day 1.3
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4
Day 5
Day 6


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