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Bob Lucky, General Editor & Ray Rasmussen, Technical Editor
January 2020 Vol. 15 No. 4

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Joshua Michael Stewart

Spurts and Flashes

This morning, I wake knowing I want to go to the New England Peace Pagoda in Leverett, Massachusetts, but I also know I’m not in a hurry. I have my daily dose of two cups of coffee (black) while I scroll through Facebook, test my blood sugar, eat a bowl of Raisin Bran, and take my morning pills. I get dressed and feed the cats. I let the calico in through the bedroom window and scold her for staying out all night by bringing her to my chest and forcing her to endure my cuddles and kisses.

crisp morning
the cat’s fur smells
of pine needles

I drive to the Quabbin Reservoir, park my car, and take my morning walk on the Winsor Dam. The dam is half a mile long, one of the longest dams on the east coast. I walk the length of it six times which takes little more than an hour. It’s an uneventful morning. The sky’s a deep blue with a few lazy clouds, and the same three turkeys I see every day, graze in the grass below the dam. The lake’s more choppy than normal, and down aways from the turkeys is a flock of Canada geese of about three adults and nine goslings. Once, about a month ago, I was trekking back to my car when a moose stepped out from the birch and oak, and stood right in front of me. I froze, couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The moose didn’t move, but looked right at me. It was larger than any deer, but not as large as most bull moose, and it didn’t have antlers, so it must’ve been a female or a juvenile. I slowly walked backward, repeatedly said under my breath, “Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit.” After a few seconds, it proceeded to the other side of the woods, gone as quietly as it had arrived.

a moose steps
onto the path
the same paralyzing fear
as when I had to stand
before my father

I head west on Route 9. I eventually reach the winding roads of North Amherst that roll into Leverett. I’ve been to the Peace Pagoda a handful of times, but I still get lost. I know I don’t want to find myself on Route 63. At every turn, I plead for it to not be Route 63, but eventually, just past the Route 63 sign, I pull my car over to the side of the road. I drag an old TomTom out of the glove box. It takes a few minutes to get it working, but soon I’m back on the road and after a few minutes I turn into a gravel parking area.

I walk for about five minutes on a path through the woods. At the end of the trail, the canopy of trees opens up to a lush green field, blue sky, and in the center, the white dome of the Peace Pagoda. On the left, made from tan and white stone is the new Buddhist temple. It has large windows and two lion statues flanking the steps leading to its large wooden doors. I’ve never been inside the temple. I’ve been reading up on Buddhism for years, and I practice mindfulness, but I don’t feel comfortable calling myself a Buddhist, like I haven’t earned it or something. I feel that if I set foot in the temple I’d be trespassing, and I don’t want to give any sense of disrespect, so I go no further than the steps. I look back toward the field and the path that led me here. I look toward distant bluish-gray mountains, listen to crickets and birds, and think, I could live here – just walk through the woods and disappear. I’d be okay with that.

in the woods
fantasy of a life
of solitude
the distant sound
of a freight train

There’s a walkway that circles the pagoda – at each of the north, south, east, and west points of the dome there’s a Buddhist statue painted gold. I’m thankful for having such a place exists so close to home. There’s a pond a short distance from the pagoda that has beautiful pink water lilies. Goldfish swim just below the surface, and at the water’s edge is a bright-green frog with yellow eyes, it doesn’t move, and for a long while, neither do I. A stone bridge crosses the pond, and near the bridge is a small tree that once had a wasps’ nest in it. I’ll tell my sweetheart that the nest is no longer here, but I know she’ll never come back.

peace pagoda
my love walks too close
to the wasps’ nest

As I cross the bridge, I start to think about my meditation practice. From January 2018 to April 2019, I meditated every day for twenty minutes without missing a single day. I’d sit in a straight-back chair with my eyes half-closed either in silence or with some jazz playing softly. Most of the time I’d just focus on my breathing and observe my monkey mind as objectively as possible, other times I might do a body scan or a guided meditation, but in the past four months I haven’t meditated at all. I still work on mindfulness, while doing the dishes, driving to work, or out on my morning walk, but it’s not every day, and I don’t set a timer of any kind – I do it more in spurts and flashes when it comes to mind, especially when I’m anxious or find my thoughts spiraling down an abyss of negative thought-stories.

On the other side of the pond, a rock garden, and strung from tree to tree are brightly colored prayer flags. On one of the tree branches are some wind chimes ringing out the familiar notes of a pentatonic scale. There’s no dramatic reason for why I stopped meditating, it just seemed that over time it became one more thing I had to do, one more chore. I’m a counselor. I work in a residential program for adults with special needs. I often work twelve-hour shifts where there aren’t twenty minutes to sit and meditate, and if I do try to squeeze it in somewhere, I spend the whole session worrying if the office phone is going to ring, or if one of the clients will knock on the door needing help with something, and in the end, whether I was able to get through the twenty minutes uninterrupted or not, I’m more stressed and frazzled than I was going into it. I do miss it, and I may start up again, but I don’t think I’ll be so rigid with making sure it’s done every day for a specific amount of time, and then berate myself for being a failure at living up to my own expectations.

late morning
here to hear it or not
the cicada sings

I sit on a wooden bench, watch two bumblebees do what they do on goldenrods that live next to some pussy willows. I focus my attention on the bees, then on the movement of the goldenrods in the wind, then the wind on my face, then on my breathing, uninterrupted.

prayer flags
flutter above
yellow zinnias
I leave footprints
next to the pond

Note: The "Moose" tanka was published separately in Ribbons, November 2019.