Friday, August 17, 2012


As far as I know the esteemed Zen Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hahn has not written about the meaning of driving one's Honda Civic smack into a ditch. Perhaps he has, and I just have not gotten around to reading it. 
Walking meditation is a daily practice at
Magnolia Village.

I wasn't sure about taking a 10-year old boy who values Minecraft and Left Four Dead and all things zombie to a Buddhist monastery in remotest Mississippi in the middle of the hottest summer on record, but it was (sort of) on our way to a Fourth of July family reunion in Little Rock. At the end of the retreat there was the promise of swimming pools and fireworks and fishing awaiting us in Little Rock. Honestly, I just hoped to stay at least one night at Magnolia Grove. But now it was Day Three and we were leaving on schedule without so much as a eye-roll of complaint from Jack. Remarkable.
   Thich Nhat Hahn's monastery in Mississippi is a remarkable place. Thirty Vietnamese monks and nuns welcome visitors throughout the year. The 120 acres of rolling forest and farmland are the perfect setting for a simple kitchen/meditation hall, dormitories and a few small, private huts. (Camping is also an option.) Retreats are open to all ages, and I was so impressed by the presence of children during my previous visits to Magnolia Grove that I determined to bring Jack with me. What I had not foreseen was the excruciating heat of one of the most interminable summers in recent history, which turned even the slightest effort into perspiration.
   So by the time I loaded the car with our clothes and snacks and Jack's menagerie of stuffed animals— including a very large Panda—my face was flushed and my sundress, damp. Unseen cicadas droned their endless lament from deep within the nearby oak glen. Once the car was packed, I collected Jack from the shaded playground and he wedged himself beside the large Panda in the backseat and buckled his seatbelt.
   "Next stop Wendy's!" he cried.
   I admit it seemed odd going so abruptly from dharma to deep fried. Magnolia Grove serves some of the most wonderful, fresh, healthy food in the world—but it's strictly vegan and my son is strictly a chicken-nugget-avore. For three days, he managed to survive on fruit, rice and fresh baguettes baked by the monks and nuns, along with peanut butter crackers and Chips Ahoys and granola bars that I smuggled in to supplement the monastery menu. Wendy's was to be our first stop upon reentering the Western world.
    I slowly edged out of the gravel driveway and turned my wheel to enter the country lane that runs in front of the monastery. But instead of easing onto the pavement, my car lunged downward. Too late, I realized my mistake: I had not cleared a four-foot-deep ditch adjacent to the drive. We stopped with an abrupt jolt. The nose of my bright blue car planted its front fender's "Loving Kindness is My Religion" sticker in terra firma. The rear spoiler tilted up to the heavens. I heard the sickening crunch of fiberglass. There was no going forward. There was no backing out. I was stuck.
   But you'll be happy to know I reacted in the manner one might expect of a good, Buddhist practicer.
   "Oh shit!" I muttered.  (To my credit, normally, I would have said something much, much worse.)
   "You owe me a quarter, Mom!" Jack said from the backseat.
   "Are you okay?" I asked.
   "Yes," Jack said. "But holy crap, Mom, you wrecked the car!"
    The car was wedged at an awkward angle, making the passenger door impossible to open.
  "C'mon, get out on this side," I said, adding "Be careful" when I realized that we were in a rather precarious position and I wasn't sure the car was stable.
   I leaned my weight against my door. It took more effort than I expected to get myself out of the tilted vehicle. Jack scrambled over the console and out to safety. I shut the car door. We stared at the car for a moment in quiet disbelief.
  "Wow, Mom," he said, "You really wrecked the car!"
   "I didn't wreck it..." I said slowly. "The car just...went...into the ditch."
   I crouched down to examine the nose of the car. The driver's side looked hideously crunched. The sound of cartoon cash register bells sounded off in my head. Cha-ching! And for a moment, the familiar feeling of wanting to blame this mishap on something or somebody—even myself or Jack—welled up inside of me, but only for a moment. After three days of rising at 6 AM to chant and prayer, eating in noble silence, walking in contemplative meditation, listening intently to Dharma talks and experiencing the sublimeness of "Total Body Relaxation" sessions, I couldn't muster my usual, "If only I had..." regrets or frustrations. I had not been distracted by worrisome thoughts or the desire hurry to our next destination. One minute Jack and I were turning out of the driveway, the next, we were stuck. I had miscalculated the turn. It was an accident. And certainly it was karma—but not necessarily "bad" karma or even karma in the sense of destiny.
   At other times in my life, I would have followed that karma down the proverbial rabbit hole trying to wring out meaning. (ie: "We weren't meant to leave at this time. I still have something to learn.") But today, driving my car into a ditch was simply driving my car into a ditch. It was life. It happened. I made a conscious decision to set aside the "why's?" and focus on the "what now?"
   Then a happy thought crossed my mind: I had road side assistance through my AT&T service! This realization cheered me until I recalled that, out here in the middle of nowhere Mississippi, AT&T didn't have reliable service. I walked around the grounds of Magnolia Grove holding my iPhone up in the air as if it might attract more more satellite waves from the heavens. Finally, I found a spot that could manifest enough bars to complete a call, but although I could hear the customer service representative, he could not hear me. This would have been completely frustrating had I been anywhere else, but screaming into my iPhone at a person who was in no way at fault for my dilemma, while standing by the lotus pond that surrounds the large marble statue of Shakymuni Buddha hardly seemed appropriate. The truth is: I didn't have the urge to get upset. My car was stuck. I was not.
    Without my car, I would have to ask someone to drive me to a hotspot—and every someone who had a car at this retreat was still seated in the large meditation hall listening to the conclusion of the dharma talk entitled, "Beginning Anew." We would have to wait until the talk was over to ask someone to help us. I explained the situation to Jack.
  "But Mom," he said. "What if we're stuck here FOREVER!"
   I could think of much worse fates that being stuck at Magnolia Grove forever. In fact, the tranquility and simplicity of this remote haven held hypnotic appeal. I understand why young nuns and monks are drawn to a lifestyle where happiness is the chief objective.
   The monastics of Magnolia Grove beautifully demonstrated the practice of mindfulness in everyday life. Visiting here was like touring a working farm, except instead of seeing how a person might, say, milk a cow by hand, the monastics give example of how to apply the practice of mindfulness to all actions of life. Washing dishes becomes a meditation. Walking becomes a prayer. Talking with friends becomes spiritual communion. To live each day with this sense of heightened awareness is, indeed, joyful. There's no conflict. No anxiety. It's strawberry fields forever. But let's face it, how difficult can it be to maintain inner peace when you're living a simple life that does not involve deadlines, mobile phones, e-mail, mortgage payments, entangling romances, or children who don't comply with your no-dirty-clothes-on-the-floor requests? Yes, in many ways, leading the life of a monastic seems easy compared to applying the Buddhist principles outside the grounds of Magnolia Grove. Now that's a trick. And as it happened, I was given a "wonderful" opportunity to "practice" even before I left the grounds!
   "We won't be stuck here forever," I said, smiling. "I promise we'll be on our way as soon as possible. Why don't you go play while I wait."
The damage was remarkably minor.
   Without further complaint, Jack ambled over to the playground and contented himself to sift through the cool, smooth stones that covered the ground beneath the swing set. The retreat had a calming effect on him as well. I knew he was hungry. Now fast food had to wait for the dharma talk's conclusion. It would be at least another hour before we could call a tow truck. And there was no telling how long it would take a wrecker to get here so we could be on our way. Of course, that was assuming Honda would be drivable once it was dislodged from the ditch. An un-drivable car meant a day's excursion in the nearby town dealing with wrecker services, repair men and rental cars. Our next destination was my sister's house in Little Rock—four hours away. And although we didn't have to be there at any exact moment in time, our hope had been to arrive in time to get in a swim and relax a bit before dinner. Now my hope is that we could get there. Period.
   The dharma talk concluded. Helpful retreat-goers offered their cell phones (with equally bad access), and the use of the monastery's tractor (a good idea unless the tractor lunged and yanked the bumper clean off my car.) One of the elder nuns looked at my car nose-down in the ditch and—after being assured no one was hurt—smiled in a knowing way that said, "There's another good reason to NOT own a car." Then, she insisted I join them at the picnic tables for lunch beneath the oak trees.
   After the bell rang concluding the noon meal's noble silence, Pete, a Magnolia Grove regular,  offered to drive me to a hot-spot. About that time, Jack came running up from the playground.
   "Mom! I found an arrowhead!" he shouted.
    He held out a flat, triangular stone that appeared to be honed to a point. It did indeed look like an authentic Native American weapon. I marveled at the find. Had we zipped away as planned, Jack would not have turned archeologist. You never know what treasures are to be discovered in mishaps.
   We hopped into Pete's car and drove toward civilization until I had four bars and my 611 call could be completed. (I'll spare the details of how I then discovered that AT&T roadside assistance did not cover the tow-truck charge..) The truck was summoned. For $125 the tow service would remove the Honda from the ditch. I was told it would take at least thirty minutes for my rescuer to arrive.
You've gotta look closely to see the dent.
   Waiting at the monastery in the mid-day heat, I still didn't know if I could drive the car once it was righted. And yet, there was no use jumping to conclusions or getting upset. The tow truck would arrive and pull the car from the ditch. We would either drive away in the car or we'd climb into the truck cab with the car carried on its winch and make our way into town to continue our misadventure. Either way, getting upset would not change the circumstances or outcome, nor would it get us anywhere any sooner.
  As I thanked Pete for driving us to the hot-spot, we heard the sound of a diesel engine changing gears. A truck was just down the road, but heaving closer to us. Was it possible? Yes. In Thich Nhat Hahn's world, Hal, the friendly tow truck driver, lives just down the road from Magnolia Grove. And he just "happened" to be sitting in his kitchen finishing his ham sandwich when he received the dispatcher's call.
   Thanks to Hal's expertise, my blue Honda was unstuck in record time and was remarkably unscathed mechanically, and just slightly bruised cosmetically. (The little dent adds character, don't you think?) In no time, Jack was happily eating chicken nuggets and french fries and sipping a large Dr. Pepper—very, very mindfully.

   Later that day as Jack nodded off in the back seat, clutching his prized arrowhead, his head resting on the giant stuffed Panda, a feeling of wonder settled over me. Something remarkable had occurred. I was grateful for my dented car, and for a story that I would share with Jack for the rest of our lives. Had we departed Magnolia Grove as planned, I might not have realized just how much we learned there.

1 comment:

  1. what a great story! it's funny how seemingly terrible events can create the most incredible possibilities.