hand me the flute

September 23rd, 2011

The farther I roam from home, the more I realize the disservice I do from this distance, from this page, with these clumsy, wooden words.

The other day I heard from someone I met at a retreat nearly 20 years ago. She asked me if I was the one with the story about the flute. I was astonished that after all this time she’d found me. I heard an echo that’s been running through my mind lately, the echo of a flute.

The dharma is never what we think it is. Nothing is what we think it is. Nothing has the meaning that we manufacture.

It was only my second retreat when I begged a ride up into the San Jacinto Mountains to sit 10 days with Maezumi Roshi. I admit I was beginning to feel rather privileged, the way newcomers can feel favored just because strangers are nice. When I got my daily work assignment, I knew what it meant.

My job was to dust the altar in the teacher’s room.

The teacher’s altar. You know what that means.

Other people were cleaning latrines and clearing brush.

And so I reported daily to the big altar in his small quarters. He was never there. I took great care with the strange and wondrous objects, the flowers and offerings arrayed on the polished platform. A statue of something-or-other; a figurine of who-knows-what; incense; a candle; a funny-looking stick; a whatchamacallit; a thingamajig. I’d never seen an altar up close. I didn’t know what anything was called or what it was supposed to do. I picked each item up and held my breath as I dusted beneath it, praying that I’d remember where to set it down again: a high and holy rite.

One day Maezumi came in while I was there. He smiled and said something to me. What he said was:

Hand me the flute.

The flute? Everything looked foreign to me, but nothing looked like a flute.

I handed him the stick. He laughed.

No, the flute!

I handed him the thingamajig.

The flute! The flute!

Suddenly I knew that I didn’t know what anything meant. You know what that means.

He came closer and stood over me, pointing directly to the meaning I had misunderstood. I looked down the bow of his finger and saw:

A plum. I handed it to him and he took a bite.

What’s the matter, he laughed. Don’t you speak Engrish?

That day I learned the difference between a flute and a fruit. It’s something you can only taste for yourself, in person. After you taste it you can tell a story about it. A story that has meaning, even if it’s only to you.

On this, the eighteenth anniversary of the day I met Maezumi Roshi and started to see, to hear, to taste, and to live.

The Plunge one-day retreat in Pittsburgh Oct. 1
Beginner’s Mind one-day meditation retreat in LA Oct. 9
Love Beyond Limits parenting workshop in Athens, GA Oct. 22


  1. Happy anniversary of coming to your senses :))

    Comment by Bobbi — September 23, 2011 @ 12:10 pm

  2. Wow. Simply wow!

    Comment by Roos — September 23, 2011 @ 1:46 pm

  3. oh my goodness. Thank you for this story, a deep belly laugh and the sweet taste of that fruit.

    You wrote in my book in milwaukee – your baby will be OK. it is a mantra that continues to be good for me, and for all mamas.

    love from wisconsin xo

    Comment by Alyssa — September 23, 2011 @ 5:22 pm

  4. So funny. So glad you shared this anniversary tale. (My dad told me he wanted Car Keys for Christmas. I thought, “He’s finally lost his mind.” Then I realized his faculties are intact, it’s just his New Hampshire accent that’s getting thicker with age. He wanted a pair of khakis. Pants.) A wonder we all communicate as well as we do!

    Comment by Katrina Kenison — September 23, 2011 @ 5:25 pm

  5. Happy anniversary. Thank you for a much needed chuckle and the reminder that I have no idea what anything means, despite thinking I’ve got it all figured out.

    Comment by Alana — September 23, 2011 @ 10:35 pm

  6. Words are wooden but they can be delicious, too! I just tasted these and I know. Don’t believe me? Just try them!

    Comment by Bill — September 24, 2011 @ 3:44 am

  7. 😀

    Comment by Kaishu — September 24, 2011 @ 10:22 am

  8. Lovely.
    Just floating with the river.

    Comment by Nichole — September 24, 2011 @ 9:33 pm

  9. Happy birthday.

    Comment by Nichole — September 24, 2011 @ 9:37 pm

  10. A great story, this made me smile. Happy Anniversary. Here’s to many lessons unexpected, the best wisdom.

    Comment by kevin webb — September 25, 2011 @ 12:00 am

  11. Thank you. As always, I’m grateful for your “wooden words”

    Comment by Marianne — September 25, 2011 @ 3:54 pm

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