Posts Tagged ‘cleanliness’



I inadvertently topple the vase,

the water more pouring than dripping

from counter to floor,

and I think of Isan, the lowly cook

in the koan. As the story goes,

the Zen master fills a vase

with water, then asks his disciples,

“Who can tell me what this is

without naming it?”

The senior disciple says,

“No one can call it a wooden shoe.”

But Isan, he walks over

to the vase and kicks it

so that it falls over and the contents spill.

The master smiles.

Standing now, with the sponge

in my hand, I know I am too practical

to have done what Isan did.

I wouldn’t want to clean it up,

nor would I want anyone else

to have to clean up my mess.

I wonder, if, without having

knocked over my own vase,

I would have ever considered

my own answer to the master:

I would walk to the garden

and return with a small bouquet

of calendula, salvia, cosmos and thyme,

then arrange the cut flowers

in the water in the vase.

Perhaps they are gifts,

these mistakes—this knocking over

of things and cleaning them up—

how it makes the old lessons

come home. Isn’t it like me

to want to keep things beautiful and clean?

How I honor old Isan, his understanding

that the truth cannot be held.

I honor the spilling, the infinite spilling,

even now as I finish wiping up the spill,

then rearranging in my own small vase,

now refilled, the scattered calendula,

salvia, cosmos and thyme.


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… one sector of the self can step in for another in trouble

            —Kay Ryan, “Why We Must Struggle”



Because the heart is a mess

I mop the floors. And shake

the rugs. And find homes


for all the knick knacks

and papers that clutter

the shelves. And when


the heart is still a mess,

I scour sinks. Then wipe

the mirrors. Hours go by.


The drawers are straightened.

Sheets and towels refolded.

Even the piano keys


are not sticky any more.

The filter in the fish tank

is scrubbed and changed.


But what does the heart care

for cleanliness? It walks

across the polished room


in its muddiest shoes

leaving gravel on the floors.

Shoves all the pillows off the couch


to make a cozier spot

for fussing, then spreads its troubles

across the counters


where they more easily

can be seen. Organizing the lot

is beyond me, but


I notice how,

between those muddled troubles,

the counters gleam.




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