“It is spring again. The earth is like a child that knows poems by heart.”
Rainer Maria Rilke
For the last three months – all of winter – I have been practising in a different dojo, with a different daily routine and a body that must only bear weight on one leg so as not to interfere with its miraculous bone-healing powers, having suffered a tricky trimalleolar fracture of the ankle. Early one morning when taking Tilly, our young dog, out for a walk, I slid and fell on it – crack!
The sounds in the hospital dojo can be repetitive – like Philip Glass pieces – ding-dong, ding-dong interweaving from different sources, over and over, day and night, alerting staff to patients’ needs – or they can be startlingly terrifying, when random lion-like roars and bellows erupt from somewhere down the corridor day or night. Or elegaic – “Please help me. Please please help me. I’m killing myself’. And some are joyful, like the laughter and chatter of nurses arriving in the dark at the front door outside my room to begin the day shift.
The sangha in this dojo are young nurses, cleaners and kitchen staff from all over the world, fellow-patients with a wide range of ailments, and their families. My ward companion’s muscles are wasting away; a neat older woman endlessly wanders the corridors in search of somebody, or something. On his first day, a lovely old chap slips out the door in his new pyjamas, and wanders the Longueville streets. After a long police search, he is brought back safely. In the room adjacent to mine, a beautiful middle-aged woman nears the end of her life surrounded by her loving family, one of her sons sleeping on the floor of her room. One night we all sleep soundly – no lions roar – and in the morning, I learn he has gone to a nursing home.
Friends encourage my hospital practice with cards, flowers and books, heartfelt expressions of compassion which I deeply appreciate. Family members and dear friends visit and on sunny days, Tony brings Tilly and we sit on the deck, making friends with patients and their loved ones over meals. Tilly becomes besotted with the handyman and his little dog.
After seven weeks, there is a new x-ray and the surgeon proclaims the bones have knitted and will reach full strength after a year. For several days, the physio supervises me as I walk up and down a flight of steps eight times. The occupational therapist orders devices for safe showering. I am allowed to go home! I hobble around the house, Tony drives me to local rehab twice a week and every night we sit by the fire. How wonderful.
I return to the dojo for the August zazenkai. It is good to be back and hear Jill sharing the intimate journey she has been on with her mother. I return to the dojo on Wednesday nights, grateful to Maggie for taking my place while I was in hospital. My walking gradually becomes less clunky. At home, the wonga-wonga vine covers herself with beautiful creamy flowers, the water dragons emerge from hibernation and drape themselves over sandstone rocks. It is spring again.
Our great good fortune as Zen students is that, no matter what the season, no matter where the dojo, this practice is trustworthy, dependable, breath-by-breath, the gate to peace and joy. I am grateful for its simplicity, grateful that we can sit, stand and lie down, opening to what has been there all along – we are the earth, we are the buds unfurling, the magpies carolling, ‘like a child that knows poems by heart’.
These Encouraging Words were written by Gillian Coote, roshi for the October/November SZC Newsletter