Sign posted in Swan Lake, Montana
Last week, in the first noted occasion of something in my world that hasn’t been cancelled in over 2-months in the wake of covid, I stayed for a spell in the Mission Lookout Tower in Swan Lake, which is a little thing you can do here in the great state of Montana: stay in old decommissioned fire towers. I reserved the tower 6-months ago, and based on my findings online assumed my stay was cancelled. Then, four days before my reservation was set to start, I got a call from the ranger station telling me I was good to go. So I went.
I started venturing – solo saunter style – to this particular tower in May of 2018, making this recent trip my third annual pilgrimage there. I think I stayed 3 or 4 nights my first time. Last year I stayed a week and this year, too, I booked it for a week long stay. (Merch plug: I compiled my writings from my tower stay last year into a homespun book called Sky Perch: One-week worth of writing from a lookout tower. If you’re interested, let me know and I will send you a copy for $10.)
As a writer, staying solo in a tower rocketed 40-feet up off the ground is simply a stellar venue for putting pen to paper. And my last two trips there were periods of great reflection, refreshing solitude, stillness, nourishment, and energetic refueling. My trip there this last go-around, however, was not any of those things.
In honor and ending celebration of National Poetry Month here in the U.S, a poem I penned just this morning:
On Sunday morning,
during a time when pre-covid
I would’ve been gleefully
lounging about intentionally doing nothing,
I took to my vehicular steed
and made my way slowly down
en route to fetch groceries
ahead of the masses at the market.
Near 7th Ave,
I came upon a bird in the road.
When I drew closer,
the nondescript winged being
turned into a handsome mallard duck,
with green plumage shining
famously in the 7am sun.
I came to a stop,
as he clearly was both
not in a hurry to cross
nor was he bothered in the slightest
by my 4-tired presence.
And for the quick shutter flash
of a hot second, I was bothered
by this obstruction to my
privileged right of way passage.
Then, I thought better
and declared joyously:
“And why shouldn’t I stop
for this grand creature?!
He is on royal parade
and I am fortunate enough
to be his only witness.
Oh happy day,
that I should be afforded
such riches as this sighting!”
Once he was out of my harm’s way,
I carried on to the store,
where I loaded up my cart
with masked face such luxuries as
butternut squash, basil, lasagna noodles,
and a sweet pastry to gift my dear husband
when he woke.
On my way back home,
I thought nothing of the mallard
when passing by the spot
we crossed paths
just 20-minutes before.
Still, he nestled into my heart’s memory,
where I will cherish him
until the end of my blessed days.
Home is at once:
where I lay my head to rest each night –
the dwelling place that holds the shelving which holds the books I’ve collected;
the town I am cradled in and the people that I share my breath with
on a regular basis, who all gaze out and see the same mountains I do;
the state my town resides and the landscape, cattle, barbed wire,
and boots on the ground that spread from border to border;
the stomping grounds of my birth and raising,
where I fell down the basement steps in a rolling walker
when I was a baby on Lemon Street and slow danced with boys
at school dances in the gym of Log College Middle School;
and the inner world I carry with me like a snowglobe
and can shake up and make it glitter rain wherever I go.
On Monday, I broke my favorite mug (see pic above); the one I use every day; the one I purchased from a local clay artist over the summer and carted home in the saddlebag of my motorcycle. On Tuesday, I managed to break my 2nd favorite mug.
I was on a roll.
On Wednesday, I stopped into three different small town thrift shops on my way to visit a friend up north on the Flathead Lake and purchased a mug with a dancing Snoopy on one side and the words: Life is too short not to live it up a little on the other side for .50 cents and balance was restored to my early morning tea-drinking routine.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about what the foundational elements of my life are, as a lay practitioner in the Plum Village Buddhist tradition. A while back, I watched a Dharma talk online from a monastic Sister where she spoke of the founding principles of monastic life at the monasteries in our tradition and I think, if I remember right, what I’ve landed on is similar to what she shared.
I’ve identified four elements – and to be clear, theses are ones I’ve simply recognized are true and in play for myself personally, this is not any sort of official list adopted by anyone other than myself.
Nicole’s Four Foundational Elements of Lay Practice Life
- Practice (includes Dharma study)
- Play (includes music/art/creative expression)
For me, it’s helpful to understand clearly what my foundational elements are as a lay practitioner so that I know what my priorities are and in what direction I want to be spending my time and limited energy. Life is about balance. And for me it’s about balancing these four elements, often on a daily basis.
On Saturday, August 10th, a short article I wrote for the Community of Faith column ran in the Missoulian. Here it is, in its entirety:
In our Buddhist based practice, the Plum Village tradition led by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, we are encouraged to practice with the question: Am I sure? Let’s say, for example, that I am confronted with someone whose way of engaging with the world is quite contrary to my own and I think to myself: Gosh, that person is crazy. In times such as these, my practice is to ask myself: Am I sure? Am I sure that I know full well what that person is going through and where they are coming from? Am I sure that I know what’s fueling their behavior or approach to a particular situation? Am I sure this person is crazy? The answer, on all counts, is clear. Of course not! I often have little to no idea of the causes and conditions that are propelling someone else’s thoughts, speech, and/or actions. My reactionary judgments that arise, in any given situation, are not at all an accurate and full accounting of what’s actually taking place.
It’s so very easy for me to think I know something when in truth I really have no idea at all, especially when it comes to assessing someone else’s character or behavior. Using the Am I sure? question affords me the opportunity to create space in between what’s happening externally and the thoughts/speech/actions that I engage in as a result. It allows me to move from reacting to responding.
Recently, I attended a local outdoor concert where a homeless resident of Missoula came on the scene and proceeded to disrupt the event by yelling violently, both to herself and to the band that was playing. In response to her behavior, there was a critical and disrespectful approach taken with her. In short order, I realized that I was likely the only one on hand that saw the immensity of distress present in this homeless woman. Others seemed only to be focused on how inappropriate and rude she was being, in an otherwise peaceful gathering. Had the other event-goers at the time been reflecting on the Am I sure? question, perhaps it would’ve become clear that the homeless woman was likely suffering deeply from the results of untreated mental illness, versus intentionally trying to cause harm and upset of a personal nature.
Thich Nhat Hanh adds further that if when we ask our self the question Am I sure? the answer is: Yes! that we should ask the question again.
I have great affection for this wisdom teaching and I use this practice question often in my daily life. I have found that it helps to keep me angled in the direction of understanding, compassion, and kindness, which are three foundational tenets of human connection.
Nicole Dunn is an ordained member of the Order of Interbeing in the Plum Village tradition and serves as the director of the Open Way Mindfulness Center and the program director of the Be Here Now Sangha.
For original article in the Missoulian, click here.
I came across this poster for sale at a local store in Polson, Montana on Thursday (see above).
Write it on your heart that every day is the best day of the year.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
What an important and lovely verse to carry with us on our path of developing values and in our tool bag of practices. Too often, we set our life up to be happy, to be content, to be full of gratitude later on, at some undisclosed date in the future. We hinge our happiness on acquiring something or someone or some experience that isn’t happening in the here and now. What if instead of tomorrow or next week or next year being the best time we can envision, it was today? Game changer.
Over the past two days, I’ve had three encounters with strangers that prompted this writing I penned this morning:
even when it’s counter-intuitive –
especially when it’s counter-intuitive.
Rally kindness when you don’t feel like it;
when a situation seemingly calls for its opposite;
when it’s hard as hell to do it.
in body, speech, mind,
and in spirit.
Rally kindness so that it becomes
the lens through which you see the world;
so that it becomes the soles of your shoes
and the air you breathe, in and out.
If we choose not to rally kindness –
and yes, it is a choice –
amid challenging times with difficult people,
we will never stand a chance
of growing a garden of love and inclusiveness,
to cover the world over.