After spending a bit over three decades of my life trying to channel the exuberant extrovert most everyone expected me to be, I recently admitted to myself and a few others that I am really not that person, or at least not all the time. Although I enjoy my job as a teacher and occasional company of my many friends, my natural inclination is to seek solitude, silence, and serenity.
All was well until we moved to our current apartment on one of the busiest streets of our town. When we fist settled in, I lamented to all my friends about the street noise that prevented me from sleeping, relaxing, or just simply being at ease in my home. My eight-year-old son Alex gladly joined me in my efforts to create a serene, welcoming oasis in our fenced patio to offset the hectic rhythm of civilization.
We planted beautiful plants and flowers in big ceramic pots, hung delicate wooden wind chimes, and installed two comfy outdoor recliners to go with our improvised refuge. Those things worked out well, but I kept feeling like I needed to add something else to complete our treasured peaceful corner. Then I saw a “Zen Sand Garden” in one of the expensive landscaping catalogues. It was exactly what I needed, but it came with a steep price tag. Well, all the better I thought—instead of buying it I would make it ourselves. I sat Alex on my lap and told him that we are going to make a small Zen sand garden for our patio.
–Umm … Well, we’ll need a big pretty bowl, some sand, a few rocks. Then we arrange everything to make it look nice. When we want to think about something, or just relax and calm down, we can slowly move things around in it. It’s a Zen thing, get it?
–Not really, but I can show you where some pretty rocks are!
Alex and I spend several weekend mornings looking for just the right stuff for our sand garden. We found a large clay shallow bowl at the garage sale and we brought perfect white sand in two big zip lock bags from our trip to Carmel Beach. Alex showed me his special pretty rocks spot, and we spent hours picking out our favorite few. Once we had all the components, Alex and I arranged them ever so carefully into what turned out to be a beautiful Zen Sand Garden.
As we gently played with white, soft sand and smooth rocks in it, Alex asked me what Zen was. I explained the best I could, hoping that at least some of it would make sense to an eight year old, fully realizing that big words like balanced, serene, peaceful, reciprocating, and the others were not quite age appropriate.
–Alex, do you get it now?
–I think so, he answered reluctantly.
I thought, it’s too bad that Alex is not old enough to fully comprehend all the mysteries of life and spirituality. Perhaps some day he will, and until then I’ll just keep on trying to explain it.
That was Saturday night. On Sunday morning I was the first to wake up. Instead of savoring my few precious minutes of lounging in bed while Alex was still asleep, I jumped out of bed and ran to our patio glass door to admire our new Zen garden.
What I saw almost made my heart stop. A large, brown bird was taking a rambunctious dust bath in our sand garden, sending precious white sand, small rocks, and seashells flying in all directions. As I looked at the terrible mess, I silently gasped, and my thoughts raced from imagining bird’s parasites and exotic diseases to thinking about a quick bird-murder plot with tools on hand. A second later I felt Alex’s hand touching me. I turned, fully expecting him to share my indignation and fury.
Instead, I saw my son smiling. His eyes were fixed on the bird as it was splashing around in our sand garden. “Mommy, it’s our Zen bird,” he whispered softly, careful not to scare it away. I was just about to ask him what he meant, but a split second later I understood. It struck me that I was the one who did not know the first thing about Zen. There was a real living creature enjoying its life in our Zen sand garden, caught up in its present moment of enjoyment despite of all the incessant street noise. Yes, it was our Zen bird. My son had his eyes and heart open for it, while I did not.
It’s been a few months since we got our sand garden. The Zen bird comes almost every day to look for bird seeds Alex began to put by the bowl. Sometimes it takes a sand bath. I’ve gotten into a habit of sweeping around the sand garden every week, and I am no longer mad at the Zen bird. In the mornings, Alex and I often spend a few quiet minutes watching the Zen bird though the glass door. May be one day, I will learn what Zen really is.