Day two of my retreat begins at 5:50 in the morning, which is one of those times I’ve only seen a few times in life. My advantage lies in the fact that 5:50am in California is actually 8:50am in Michigan, but the lack of sun makes it feel early. I don my brand new mediation garb (a white tee shirt and soft Nike pajama pants), and brave the chill morning air to the zendo. I manage to be late enough to miss out on a spot in the zendo itself and am asked to take a small cubicle in Cloud Hall, the outer area where the devotees pound the wooden gong and metal bell.
I settle myself on a cushion with Ana’s words from last whispering in my skull; “the goal is not-think.” I try to find my center, keep my spine moving upwards, relax my shoulders, and seek the breath. I feared, with the early start time, the risk of falling asleep, but I am not tired and as the time ticks by there are no drowsy moments. I am focused on breathing and on keeping my posture and forty minutes flies by like ten. Then the gongs and bells ring, jolting me back to reality, and Sukey walks in to Cloud Hall and motions for me to follow her into the zendo. I did not expect anything beyond the sit time, but after every zazen there is a ceremony, that while shorter, reminds me of nothing else but a Catholic Mass.
I find the cushion next to Sukey, which I approach from the wrong direction despite Ana’s briefing the night before, and I stand in the opposite corner from her so that when everyone looks towards the altar, no one’s sight is blocked by the person in front of them. A chime sounds and we all bow, followed by a descent to a kneeling position on the mat. We rise, a chime sounds, and we descend again. This is repeated about five times, and by the fifth I’m actually feeling a little winded. I’ve never prostrated myself to anyone or anything, and I feel strange the first time it happens. The motion is like doing burpees but slower. When this is finished, we face the center of the hall and sutra booklets are passed around and taken by those who have not yet memorized all the chants. Sukey shows me which chant to turn to at each stage, and the analogies to Catholic Mass at this point are eerie. The Abbess is in the center and we are all facing her and chanting these sutras in unison, and it reminds me of my childhood in church attempting to sing the hymns and never knowing which page to turn to nor the harmony required. That half of these sutras are in Japanese further deepens my confusion, and further likens it to singing latin songs in church.
The ceremony only lasts for ten minutes, and we follow it up by cleaning the zendo. One of the permanent residents serves as task-master for the center, and she is quick in assigning everyone tasks. The efficiency is impressive. I am designated entryway sweeper, and I attempt to perform my task with as little bumbling as possible. We eat breakfast, which is a completely silent affair, and at 8:30am the entire community gathers in what is referred to as the pool deck (there was once a pool there).
As I look around this circle of people who have devoted themselves to various lengths of stay here, I am surprised by the variety. There are more young people than anything else, but there is an age range that spans early twenties to late seventies. There are more white folks than anything else, but I see numerous Asian faces and one African face and several Hispanic faces. The ratio of men to women is surprisingly even, and nearly everyone is dressed in work garb of some kind. These are the people who run this place, the farmers and gardeners and kitchen staff. No one is without a job to do, and I feel that it’s maybe the prototypical intentional community. Announcements are made, we sing happy birthday to one guy, and the majority of the crowd disperses to get to work while the work week guests stay for an extra meeting with Sukey.
It is no surprise when I am assigned sheet mulching duty with a few others, and while I’ve been out of my element until now, doing landscape work feels like home. My worker pals in this instance are Heidi, Susan, and Bridget, and as we work we find out a little about one another.
Heidi is short, has red hair in a shade I’m incapable of identifying, and wears beautiful tattoos on her shoulders that seem to flow together in some mystic way. She has an edge, and seems easily annoyed, but she seems to enjoy the work. She also likes driving the vehicles around and becomes a designated driver of sorts over the course of the week. As with many of the residents, Heidi seems trouble by something, and I often see her disappearing to meditate when she finds an opportune spot. She seems to relish being along, which is something I can sympathize with, and it is one of the creeds of the zen center to respect the perpetual solitude that we all live with.
Susan works in Los Angeles, and like nearly everyone in L.A. is tangentially tied to the film industry. In her case, it is in the academic wing, and she serves as a business instructor at Los Angeles Film School. Her sense of humor, which is nearly always lurking, is wry and she often punctuates the air with a bark of laughter that feels straight out of The Simpsons. Susan also loves working, and over the course of the week is constantly stretching her toil times later and later into the break periods. Every time I see or think about Susan for the duration of my stay at Green Gulch, The Doors’s L.A. Woman plays in my head.
I thought at first that Bridget was German. I couldn’t quite place her accent, and it was only after she told me she was half-Irish, and born in Ireland, that the bright red hair and pale, easily burnt skin all clicked into place. If Julianna Moore were shorter and stockier, she and Bridget would be twins. Bridget is industrious, constantly shuffling about trying to get things done and make sure everyone is on task. She’s actually hilarious, in an unintentional way, and I often find myself watching her bustle about and wondering how her mind works.
When we break, tragedy strikes, and a woman named Barb informs us that her brother has died, and that she needs to leave to take care of things. This is an unexpected and jarring break in what is only the beginning of the week, but the kindness that is shown to Barb is touching to even an old ogre like myself. I never have the opportunity to talk to Barb, but she seems nice in the way that your favorite aunt is nice. I talk a little with an older man named Greg after Barb’s announcement. I learn that Greg is from Iowa, and that this is his second work week. I also find out that Greg was in Vietnam, and he talks about how the zen center has helped him calm the chaotic thoughts that he assumes everyone has. This is at odds with Greg’s personality, which is open and boisterous and he seems like the happiest person for miles.
We finish our sheet mulching and have dinner, which thankfully is not a silent affair, and I am amazed once again at the food. I have my fill, which seems to be the norm at the center, and drowsily make my way back to the guest house for a much needed shower. My body quickly makes it known that it is quite tired, and I fall asleep at around six thirty and don’t wake again until the next morning. My first full day at Green Gulch Farm has slipped away in what seems like no time at all.