Lively Flapping


unstill life with water

“When water solidifies, it is harder than a diamond.  Who can crack it?  When water melts, it is gentler than milk.  Who can destroy it?” –Dogen, Mountains and Rivers Sutra.

D’s collected works are in my lap.  The gigantic engines rev.

As the US Airways shuttle taxis on the runway at La Guardia, the stewardess reminds us that water-landings are extremely unlikely, but nonetheless.  Not far off, the ocean yodels under the onset of morning.  The direction of its flow is unapparent from here, but its general (co)motion is as constant as the squirms of a child who really has to pee. When asked what he knew, really knew for sure, Einstein replied: “Something is in motion” (or so J tells me).  Dr. E likely meant the whole picture, and the picture that lies beyond the picture.

I have confidence in the water, any water.

Sometimes It Leaves Without You

I miss the next flight.  I’m standing at the book kiosk in Ronald Reagan airport in D.C., reading our nation’s best-selling titles by people whose popularity is due to their titles selling the best.  These authors have some traits in common, namely a charismatic XY legitimacy.  Their tone is back-lit by a hardly restrained-snarkiness-cum-generosity.  The titles betray an alpha confidence.  I start with this one: “Everyone Communicates: No One Connects.”

In this case, being a member of everyone immediately subsumes you in the category of a no-one.  You’re at the base of the pyramid.  Above you are those who “get” it.  Topping off the pyramid is the big G, who also happens to be the container of the whole project.  God is wearing many hats, as she is also credited, in more than one text (can I call it text?), as the organizing principle behind the authorial assurance.   Apparently, God is really good at making the other person feel heard without trying at all.  Now it’s your turn.

sound of one tree clapping

No. Yes.

I flip through the books.  They are filled with successfully puréed stock phrases and stock phrases do what they’re meant to do: become soup.  The soup is palatable and tasty—that is, to someone’s idea of “most” people.  The books hereby generated are all slightly similar to one another like suburban homes.  They are meant to help us all acquire the habits, thinking strategies and social skill sets of Leaders.   This advice might even work.

But is that what we want, really?  Is it not also brilliant to tread on the quieter path, taking care to damage nothing, not even to crush the already-dead leaves under your feet as you go?  Neither disturbing nor disturbed by the bird calls which not only are not communicating with you, but quite likely are also not connecting with you?  Dogen talks about “leaving things as they are” as itself a form of giving or generosity, a form of vital interchange by which both mind and gift are co-transformed.  As a race, we categorically leave nothing as it is, if we can help it.    But could the other way be far sexier, even far more alpha for the wisdom it entails, to purposefully remain on the bottom of the pyramid and recognize the living world as forms all inexplicably in relationship, all dancing to the same music?

No. Yes.

I’ve gone selectively deaf.  The airline pages me—three times!  When I present my boarding pass at the gate at the hour of my theoretical departure, I’m told the flight to Michigan is gone.  Gone like gone? Literalism has always irritated me.  I run back to the desk.  But I was here the whole time, I say. Not even five feet away!

We paged you three times. Are you Sara Nolan?  My name gets passed around faster than premium cigars at a baby’s birth.


The plane is gone, the agent says.  She should work as an end-of-life chaplain, she’s so gentle.

Awesome.  Did I say awesome?  BUT I WAS IMPROVING MYSELF IN THERE! Is there nothing you can do?

Diogenes: “Before begging, it is useful to practice on statues.”

After self-help, then what?  You may feel like a budding leader, but your airplane still left you myopically meditating on its exhaust.

As far as I can tell, the end result of all this self-correcting the books engineer is: you make more money than you did and people like you more for it.  Or the guy who wrote the book makes money and you have the book, which makes you feel half way towards where you need to go.  And isn’t that better than feeling like, along with the hoi polloi, you need to reach for a book at an airport? Wouldn’t you rather have written it?

No.  Yes.

The airport knows you want “something” for the plane. And a credit card, as far as matter-in-action goes, is rather an elegant piece of equipment, so thin you could lodge it under a bra and not be too bothered.  One swipe of it, like one inhale, and you’re already on the road to improvement.  Or! you could just board the next plane without a plan for the rest of your life.

balasana considerations

Right As Rain

From the moment, I do the latter.  They rush me out with a VIP-esque urgency to a Philly-bound baby toy of aviation, virtually empty.  I puddle-jump from NYC to Washington to Philly and now, finally, to Detroit.  As Bill Cosby put into the mouth of Noah, when the lord commanded Build Me An Arc and Put Two of Everything In It: Riiiiiiiiiiiigght.

Right: I am on my third plane of the day.  The boy-men in the aisles across from me are playing video games with that special video-game look in their eyes.  You know the look.  It’s the kind of devotional attention one pays to little else.  One boy-man says to the other: When you’re hungry, your guy’s got to eat lots of guys! His friend grins.  The stout flight attendant, who manages to be both blond and brusque, admonishes: Those need to be turned off and stowed! But what if his guy gets hungry, I worry, and is stranded in the digitalized world of make-believe and human negligence with no other guys to eat?  Not even a virtual hors-de-oeuvres?  The boy-men put the video-games underneath the emergency pamphlet.  Their thumbs are twitching.  Now it’s roulette.  Whose guy will get whose guy is anyone’s guess.  The plane stutters as its roof pierces the first stack of clouds.

Dogen shouts from the snow of the 9th century—perhaps to the other guys, perhaps to no other guys:

“Buoyant, I let myself go—filled with gruel, filled with rice./ Lively flapping from head to tail,/ Sky above, sky beneath, cloud self, water origin.”

And this joie-de-poem from a time long before airplanes were gestating in the great Uterus of Prakrti.


Letting yourself go– not a leader or a follower but something even more expansive, paying allegiance only to a felt sense of rightness, which might boil down to standing with a cup of tea listening to the first rain crack over the city?

Memories get watered down quickly

The airplane is staggering a bit.  This is also what happens to the heart when one really starts to get openness.  Minor turbulence chucks about the Styrofoam cup of tea on the tray.  Mother-May-I-One-Two-Three. The boy-men are completely reabsorbed in virtuality; reality has been stowed for the duration of this belly-dropping journey.  It is easy to forget air can be a volatile place.

GOD HAS NOT FORGOTTEN ABOUT YOU. One of the books assures me—this one on the archetypal misunderstandings between men and women.

Of course not– because God is a relentless rememberer.  In the books I looked at, “God”, as a word and a “figure,” functions as an insta-tonic and a refresh button, something like: the world does not begin or end with my bigness or smallness, but no matter which way you spin it, I’m not insignificant.  Pshaw and Phew.

The word “god” could be the prism through which the paradigm splinters into an architecture of light.  In such an architecture, all the inhabitants are illuminated, because there are no dark spaces.  But too often for me “god” is hair in the drain: stops the water from flowing.  Backs up the system.

But let me back up.

God, in fact, may well have forgotten about me, at least momentarily in the D.C. airport.  The books at the kiosk which kept me from being airborne in a timely fashion are meant to give you a dose of something useful, the language simple enough—though not simplistic, so as to be insulting—to absorb even at cruising altitude, and perhaps especially so.  There, you’re temporarily on top of the world.  Whatever self you are when ground-bound gets a Time-Out, a free drink if you’re lucky, maybe even a bag of peanuts, which still grow abundantly and cheaply enough to be given away.

I take my time-out grandly.

Empty Jars.

going on

At the security line, at the beginning of this long day, I set off alarms.  I’ve worn a flower in my hair, hoping that if my quasi-Buddha nature doesn’t calm down these rule-abiders, then a cheery accessory ought to.  My backpack has the usual contraband—obscure teas, lavender oil, mountains and rivers innocuously compressed into a book, elderberry–but it is not my back-pack that stumps the screeners this time.  It’s a questionable container in my overflow bag (there is always overflow when your cup runneth, etc.).  The guard informs me he’s going to open it.


My god, thank you, but this isn’t a pap smear.

I’d expect nothing less.

And the culprit who put security on alert?  My empty glass bell jar.  That’s right: I drank a smoothie in the car and stuck the yogurty remains in my carry-on.  So it’s not liquids that are making a problem here so much as: Nothing.

Nothing, the most loaded word around.

Guard:  You brought an empty jar?

Me:  It had my breakfast in it.  (Defending emptiness?)

Guard:  Your breakfast?

Is this Socratic?  Are we getting somewhere?

But he’s jocular:  There’s nothing in here!   That’s no fun!

It’s like some people’s definition of a self.

Me: Just keeping you on your toes. Potential liquids are so scandalous!

The truth is nothing can be hard and dangerous.  It’s also preposterously soft and welcoming.  It’s the diamond and the milk.  It’s the thing the other guy doesn’t even know he wants to eat when he’s hungry.  It’s rich.  It’s the most hotly debated spiritual concept.  Which is hilarious, because it is not really a concept.

We’re descending now into Detroit and I wonder, being a fast reader, what skills I might have acquired while this Republic Air Jet briefly skimmed the heavens, had I bought one of those bestseller books.  Could I have deplaned with the ambition of, say, Noah?  L, now 103 years and counting, when asked about Noah’s arc-n-crafts project, said to me, “It’s ridiculous.  How could anything be big enough to hold two of everything?”

I see what you’re saying, L.  And nothing is—except, well, nothing.

So it’s into this nothing that I want to step.  To face it, one has to be exorbitantly positive–maybe even exuberant beyond measure.  And I suspect the act of saying a radical yes to the possibility of nothing might make you a pretty joyous someone after all.  Ha, ha, and might I add, ha!

Thanks, Reagan.  I couldn’t have come to this realization without you.  If your name were spelled differently, it might even sound like an itinerant Japanese monk from centuries long, long since crushed underfoot.  Nonetheless, the moon smiles kindly upon you, and  the crass stars make forays across the sky as if they were trying to spell something helpful but lost the nerve.

finger phonetics


2 Responses to “Lively Flapping”

  1. rick benjamin Says:

    Mountains & Rivers in your backpack?!? Now THERE’s your problem– 8 oz max. How to explain that, in Dogen’s way of looking at them, they weigh less than nothing?

    • saraknowsyou Says:

      exactly! and that a person is no different than a mountain and a mountain no different than a person. there is something elegant, economical, and very travel-friendly about all this conflation…

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