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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