the bony end of a branch

July 16th, 2012

Where do you come from?

In the same way we have a physical lineage we have a spiritual one, although you may not yet know about yours. In the same way fruit derives its flavor from the soil, it takes it from the sun. Anything and everything that comes to us comes through a lineage, because that’s how life works. Nothing comes into existence any other way.

You might still think it’s weird that I’m a Zen Buddhist—not a choice you’d make—but you wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t. That’s how lineage works. It’s not a choice of this or that. Not like inventing a new last name—make mine Rockefeller. Or like doctoring your eye color—I’ll take periwinkle blue. In lineage as in life, you get what you get. And then somewhere along the way, you get upset.

In my spiritual lineage, tracing more than eighty generations of Zen wisdom, one question is asked over and over again.

A student comes to meet a teacher, and the teacher asks, “Where do you come from?” The student replies, and from this, the teacher sees who stands there.

How would you answer?

Where do you think you come from?

From your parents? From your parents’ parents? From a place? From the place before that? From a time? Or the time before that? Before that? Before that?

How far back do you have to go to realize that you don’t know? How long before you know that you can’t ever know?

We are one family of unknown origin, the fruit of beginningless time, the descendents of everyone who has ever lived. The most we can know is that we do not know where we come from, and from that point on, everything becomes possible.

I am 55 years old. As the mother of a near-teen, I’m in the uneasy breach before the onset of an overthrow. My hair has grayed enough for me to be called gray-haired. Some of the freckles on my face are really liver spots, and the wrinkles are not just laugh lines. Life’s major milestones—those birthdays we call “The Big Ones”—have slipped past my reliable recollection. I have begun a stage of life where I am irritating to a precious few and invisible to everyone else. All these changes are as plain as day, but still, I can hardly believe it.

Here I am, petering past my prime, and here you are, just beginning that aching reach to sweetness. What will pass between us? What can I share?

Only this: the fruit on the bony end of a branch.

16 Comments »

  1. gassho.

    Comment by ben — July 16, 2012 @ 10:17 am

  2. I’m awash in the turmoil of emotions that come from having just attended a funeral. There’s nothing like the soup of grief that’s been sprinkled with the spiritual insecurities brought up by untimely death, and seasoned with my own tension from having spent 90 minutes amongst the certainty of the world only needing a single savior. Personally, I think I need a savior a week and this week you, Karen, are it. I’ll be rereading your passage about the one family of unknown origin as it’s allowed me to “exhale” on this difficult day.

    Thank you.

    Comment by Joan — July 16, 2012 @ 11:04 am

  3. ” I have begun a stage of life where I am irritating to a precious few and invisible to everyone else.”
    Karen your post today spoke to me on a lot of different levels, but especially the above line. Aging (especially as women) in our culture is not particularly valued, which is such a sad state of affairs. The wisdom we’ve gained can be so easily overlooked. Lots to ponder. Thank you.

    Comment by Robin Gaphni — July 16, 2012 @ 1:11 pm

  4. Joan, that is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read.
    Robin, somewhere, sometime, someone wakes up and sees that an old woman is the most beautiful thing they’ve ever seen.

    Love to you both.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — July 16, 2012 @ 1:58 pm

  5. I was given a Zen calendar last year. Today’s quote:

    “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you was?”
    -Satchel Paige

    The number according to my birth year doesn’t match the number I feel I am. Some days I feel younger, other days older. And sometimes I feel timeless.

    Comment by Kathryn — July 16, 2012 @ 5:49 pm

  6. Having just spent a sometimes difficult, sometimes lovely week-long vacation with my 11-year old daughter, this line hit the mark with a sweet pang: “Here I am, petering past my prime, and here you are, just beginning that aching reach to sweetness. What will pass between us? What can I share?” I want to believe I still have something to share with her… As I sit here and do research for my own mother on her breast cancer treatment and share her ups and downs, I know I do. I may just not see it for awhile in such a tangible way.

    Comment by Jennifer New — July 16, 2012 @ 6:08 pm

  7. “We are one family of unknown origin, the fruit of beginningless time, the descendents of everyone who has ever lived. The most we can know is that we do not know where we come from, and from that point on, everything becomes possible.”
    Karen, this one paragraph says almost everything to me in a strange, rather exciting way. Forget genealogy, this is more rewarding for this “older” elder.
    A rich posting, my thanks.

    Comment by Mary P. — July 16, 2012 @ 6:17 pm

  8. Some of my freckles are also liver spots. I think it’s not physical age but parenting a nearly teen girl. I’m learning she was put here to test my patience. That’s what this life is about, patience, tolerance and acceptance.

    And you? You are 55 years young!

    xo.

    Comment by Shalet — July 16, 2012 @ 8:08 pm

  9. My favourite question from Alice in Wonderland is ‘whooooo are yooooo? ‘ it is a very powerful question! And of course, so many things happen to Alice as she journeys through being big and small, being stretched into different realities. I think life is a bit like that – different life phases distort the fabric of our time line so it is not one linear journey but more a series of adventures in which time and space take on different shapes, as do we. As you said in walking the twisted path, in early motherhood days there are no walls and each day lasts two or three, but other days seem to whizz. Where we come from is a series of overlapping, pulsating, gyre-like, adventures , successes and failures. I would love to know the family genealogy of things my ancestors dreamed and wished for, adventures they planned, their thoughts. The life lived is only the half of it. The life unlived but merely imagined is often juicier! do you think we inherit such things as desires and dreams too?

    Comment by Motherfunker — July 17, 2012 @ 12:10 am

  10. It’s when we don’t think that everything becomes possible. That’s when we see that everything is shared.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — July 17, 2012 @ 8:36 am

  11. And you, my dear grey and wrinkly teacher, are a true miracle. You are putting even a bony end of a branch in full bloom.

    Comment by Roos — July 17, 2012 @ 3:43 am

  12. A few days ago someone asked me how old I was. I honestly did not know in that moment. I still believe I an be and do all I want. I just want different things from when I was young.

    Comment by Simone — July 17, 2012 @ 3:49 am

  13. I am as old as time and am from/in/of everywhere….and you my friend are too! So glad we are walking hand in hand…..

    Comment by Eva — July 17, 2012 @ 8:15 am

  14. I am from the same place as you; ancient minerals and waters, sheltered and exposed, forming this vessel that someday will return to its origins. I have no answer for my spirit, maybe it has always been and always will be. Only now, while it rests in that ancient sourced vessel,am I aware enough to wonder.

    Comment by mj — July 17, 2012 @ 11:59 am

  15. Much to think about. Thank you, Karen!

    Comment by kasey — July 18, 2012 @ 4:21 am

  16. I never know what to say when I’m asked where I’m from — both the obvious and the implicit possibilities. This post took my breath away in its affirmation of that unknowingness. Thank you.

    Comment by Elizabeth Aquino — July 18, 2012 @ 8:56 pm

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