I often choose the back way when I drive into Viroqua. Unlike the straight-shot highway, this alternate route winds its lazier way through a wide meadow where an eagle’s nest perches high above a crooked river, cows graze and eagles soar and hunt. On this route I take in the ridge-top vistas of farmland and wood stretching out for miles. The vistas shift and narrow as the road drops down into deep valleys where human activity does not dominate the daily unfolding of time and the weather.
On one such trip into town for the usual list of necessities, I slowed the car to a crawl, coming up behind an Amish buggy climbing a hill. It was early spring and in the green blush of woods on either side of the road white trillium and purple anemone poked up from beneath the leaf carpet. Within the woods’ still-bare depths stood an occasional wild crab apple tree, the belle of the spring ball, dressed in pale pink blossoms and shaped to please any suitor. Monotone winter was giving way to the first bursts of a more varied color palette. Life was returning to life.
As I passed the horse-drawn buggy, my eyes met the gaze of its lone passenger, an Amish woman who, just as I, slowed to gaze more fully at these sights of spring. In that moment as our eyes met, I felt our two worlds meet. Each way of being touched into the other, speaking volumes into the silence. For there on that hillside was a woman not unlike me yet existing wholly in a world where travel at five miles per hour into town is as fast as it gets. In her world the season’s sensate changes are lived into on every trip to town without the protective layers of airbags, rubber tires, windshields, heating and air conditioning. Or speed.
I looked into her world and saw my own. I felt myself to be slick, hardened and made remote by my steel-encased vehicle and my attempts at sophistication.
In an instant I pulled ahead and was gone, up the hill and out of the woods. By that brief encounter with another world, existing so close to my own and yet also so far, I saw that everything I think and feel and know is a construction based on the gasoline engine, the industrial revolution, the world-wide net, the American dream. Her world too is a construction, that woman in her dark blue dress held together with straight pins and covered on that chilly morning with a black wool cape, muddy black boots and black bonnet, steering her horse and buggy up the hill. We both live what we know.
But as my drive into town proceeded, I felt something…else. A truth our encounter revealed that is greater than our differences, a truth beyond our various ways of knowing, beyond the seasons, beyond time and culture and religion. All these mere categories, value judgements and ways of organizing ourselves to get something done, to get somewhere, to GET, all of it took its rightful place on the edges of the most real, the most important, the truest truth.
The world was all still there, in my open heart. It glistened with energy, with life itself. Yet I had stopped seeing it all through the lens of my small self, my middle-class American likes and dislikes, my grocery lists and my to-do lists, my drive to achieve, to be someone, to hold on for dear…life, (as if holding on could save me from death).
A chance encounter with another way of life showed me the way to let go of any “way” of life. For some time I felt cleansed, heart and mind released from the grip of fear, longing, perpetual push. That vastness of love and clarity did not last. Like warm rain on a hillside as winter fades, it fed the possibility of flowers, the possibility that life could be lived within the circle of such knowing. For beyond all my efforts, my Amish friend and I are eternally bound within a spring moment when our worlds touched and dropped away.
merging with principle is still not enlightenment
encountering the Absolute is not yet enlightenment
Merging Difference and Unity Shitou Xiqian
Author: Lao Huo Shakya
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