Late in March I went to school for the first time, a Zen center in New Mexico. Skip the rest of this paragraph if you don’t like to read about other people pooping. I flew to Los Angeles, went to the airport restroom, carefully wiped off the toilet seat (which already appeared impressively clean), put down a seat cover or two, and, magazine in hand, was enjoying a little executive time when the door of the long narrow stall slowly and inexorably swung open. No one had opened it. The latch had just come loose. Through the now-open door, I could see the face of a woman reflected in the long mirror over the sinks; she in turn could see me sitting on the toilet. I rushed to do a cursory cleanup and re-secure the door, which seconds later threatened to open again.
Then I walked for a long, long time and, just as I was wondering if I was even still in the airport, finally arrived at a tiny, desolate-seeming gate area. Boarding was announced and we walked down the gangplank, or whatever you call it. I performed my usual pre-flight rituals. Usually when I get to the plane, all I can see is the dark interior, but it dawned on me that I was looking at the sky. “This is the plane? Where is it?” I asked myself. I had to lower my gaze to see it: oh, down there. Once inside, I found that the ceiling was about two inches above my head, and I am only five feet six inches tall. It was intensely claustrophobic. I immediately regretted that I’d already booked the flight for my next trip to school, and resolved to take only nonstop flights from Oakland after that, which I assume would be in a larger plane. This one had just 12 rows of four seats.
As we approached Albuquerque, there was very strong turbulence, adding to my resolve never to set foot in a plane that small again. At the airport (“sunport”), I boarded a shuttle to go to Santa Fe. The mountains between the two cities were gorgeous. It was 32 degrees and snowing very lightly. We passed through downtown Santa Fe, where all the buildings are the same adobe color. When we arrived at school. All I could see was one small building. “This is the Zen center? Where is it?” I asked myself.
I went into the building to check in and a fellow student escorted me to my dorm room. I have a small set of recurring bad dreams, one being about treacherous staircases that become less and less navigable as I ascend. Sometimes this is a spiral staircase, and it turned out that my room was at the top of just such a staircase. I honestly don’t think I would have been able to get my heavy suitcase up it, but my peer, a good 10 or 15 years older than I—and I no spring chicken—gamely hauled it up, where I saw my two roommates (who both turned out to be wonderful) and one remaining bed. I hadn’t indicated on my questionnaire that I have any mobility issues because I didn’t want them to think I’m old.
Downstairs was a seating area with a fireplace, several other rooms for students, and a shared bathroom. I couldn’t see any hooks in the shower and wondered where one would hang her towel and après-shower attire. Right next to the shower was a room labeled Monk’s Room, and sure enough, I could see the hairy legs of some fellow sitting on the edge of his bed.
That night I lay in bed with my heart pounding and my head aching—school is at an elevation of about 7000 feet—as I labored to breathe and fumed about the lack of hooks in the shower and the presence of a man right outside the shower. I worked myself into a good snit (via what is called papañca in Theravadan Buddhism: proliferation of mind) and lay awake for at least three hours, increasingly irate. I resolved to leave first thing in the morning and never return. Then I mentally calculated if there is any feasible way I can otherwise come up with 48 units toward an M.Div. equivalency and was forced to conclude there is not.
By morning, I had decided to persevere for the remainder of the week, at least. The schedule was generously designed: an hour of zazen in the morning and in the evening. An hour of samu, or work, in the morning. My job was mainly cleaning bathrooms, a task I have successfully avoided at Spirit Rock for more than 20 years (and do not do often at home, either), but it wasn’t so bad. An hour for rest in the morning and another in the afternoon. Two hours of class in the morning and two in the afternoon. Sometimes we had another 75 minutes of class after dinner and sometimes we had the evening off. The food was wonderful. My cohort is 23 people: 19 women and four men. Precisely four people of color, all women, all Asian. All splendid people.