Chop wood; carry what?

There is a Zen saying, “Before Enlightenment chop wood carry water; after Enlightenment, chop wood carry water.” In my twenties and thirties I was part of a local Zen Buddhist center.

I say “part” because I wasn’t a consistent practitioner—I was never one for organized groups. Nevertheless, I was very much drawn to the dim, candlelit mornings held in silence, the light incense of Sandalwood and Pine, the creak of bare feet on a worn and wooden floor, and the unique sense of “togetherness” that sharing meditation with other human beings can engender.

When I first found Zen Buddhism, not much “Life” had happened to me. I appeared each morning at 3:50 a.m., fresh-faced, dressed in appropriately dark and comfortable clothes. I smiled sweetly and observed silence and moved with a conscious and quiet grace. I raked and cleaned and watered and sat and stood and bowed and breathed and chanted and gonged and even practiced meditation at home when not at the Zen center. Inspired by the emphasis on Compassion in the teachings of Buddhism, I became a vegan, entered massage school, and took up many gentle pastimes that fed my soul.

But time passed, and more Life happened, and soon I began to digress. I massaged my aching kneecaps whenever my teachers weren’t looking. I eased ever-so-slightly to the right or left of my cushion to give my body a break, daring my shadow on the wall directly in front of me to give me away. I skipped the Wednesday night Dharma talk and instead went out with friends and drank wine late into the summer nights. Stress and Life’s unfolding “story” spun me not toward the skills I had acquired, nor toward my own heart, but instead, toward everything “unskillful” and drama-producing.

By my early thirties I was a Zen student poor in practice but rich in rebellion. My dear Zen teacher would observe me coming and going a year or two at a time and simply shake her head. She once said I was like a helium balloon that she wished she could tie a small rock to, so that I wouldn’t keep floating away.

But she also had this to say, once I had returned for the umpteenth time, my face full of shame, my eyes constantly brimmed with tears, having experienced a divorce after 9 years of marriage, burying my beloved dog, three more romantic relationships and breakups, and my first healthy dark night of the soul: “This is good. You’re not as shiny now.”

She said this as she held my face in her hands and we looked into each other’s eyes. “Now you can relate to others, and this is where true compassion begins. Now Compassion is not just a precept on the pages, but a way of Being.”

And she was right.

As hard as those decades were, I wouldn’t trade them for who I have become, and who I am remembering I’ve always been…

All of us just want to know that we are not alone on this incredibly difficult, and extraordinarily beautiful, Mystery that some call Life, Life-ing.  Or God,
God-ding.  Or Human, Being.

I know you as Myself. And I love you.

— em claire

The Day Is Cold

Today I want to give up.
After reading Raymond Carver.
After too much wine last night.
It’s not yet 9 a.m. and the day is cold.
Closing my eyes offers an abyss;
a place to fall into.

But isn’t that what it is?
Everyone stumbling;
drinking; spilling.

Everyone wanting to be saved

Just a little?


“The Day is Cold” em claire
©2004 All Rights Reserved

(Em Claire is an American poet whose work appears in the book Silent Sacred Holy Deepening Heart. She may be reached through


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  • Sinclair


    I used to sit at the SF Zen Center and attend the Saturday lectures.

    I also love Raymond Carver and Lew Welch (a Beat poet who had a poem memorialized in calligraphy on a Center wall).


  • Ionic Breeze

    Lovely. The title is my favorite. “Chop wood, carry what?” It kind of reminds me of Goldie Hahn in Private Benjamin, where Goldie finds out, after joining the army, how hard the work really is on the ground. She turns to her drill seargent and asks, “Is this the army I joined? There must be some kind of mistake. Where are all the condos? all the rooms with the spas? What? Are you sure? This can’t be right. I assure you I wouldn’t have signed up for this. This is not the army I signed up for. I guarantee you I wouldn’t have signed up for this had I known what I know now. Hi”

    I am that I am. I feel the resignation, too, about this thing called ascension. It’s like alright already, enough already and it’s what many feel like these days during these ever increasingly evermore light filled energies pouring more light upon the earth and all with it, like these past few days of 10/10, 10/11, and 10/22. Magical numbers for sure. Thank God the Earth is already risen. It’s a done deal. We have risen the earth and all with it. Thank God the hard stuff is over. Thank God those dark nights of the soul are not here, and they never were here. There were never real. They were never fun by any stretch of the imagination. I’m glad the light of day has shown the unreality of the middle of the night. I’m glad the day is here for all life to seek the sun in the son of all on board a grand ship of one. Hi

    Love to you,

    Ionic Breeze

  • Wendy Lynn

    Compassion and oneness allows us to see and BE from another’s perspective so that we can come to understand that we are, in Truth – meeting ourselves in another’s face. You taught me this Em… and for that I am a new Being with much appreciation for Life and great friends 😉 (I AM enough – I can’t not be!)