by Jay Leeming
You’re trying to meditate. Cushion
beneath you, eyes slightly open,
breath growing calm and steady.
But there are sounds, distractions,
thoughts: the distant highway,
a blue jay announcing himself,
a car starting down the block.
Always the struggle to pull attention
back to breath, to let each thought
go, not to cling or to keep
but to let it drop like a stone
fallen from your hand. And at times
you manage to stumble briefly
into peacefulness. But then
amid breath and highway and birdsong
you hear something else: the rumble
of a large truck, a sound growing louder
as it rounds the corner, creaks,
then pulls up maybe a half-block away.
The engine shudders into silence.
Footsteps in the street, stray words
you can’t make out, the slam of doors.
More words, a pause, and then the kick
and climbing roar of a wood-chipper
settling in to its raw throne of noise.
The quiet shreds and scatters
with the blow, then re-shapes itself
into a steady grinding drone.
And now comes the crack and shatter
of branches fed into it, the buzz
of tree-limbs being ground to dust.
You wrestle your attention back
to your breath as the tree is fed
into the machine. And hours later
when the workers have gone
and the street is quiet again it happens
without a thought, as while walking
down the block you simply find yourself
there, beside the stump, noticing
how it has been cut nearly level
with the ground so that you can count
the rings, and kneeling down
beside it you begin to count them,
rings of a tree probably thirty
or forty years old, and around you
sawdust scattered in the grass,
a few scraps of leaf, and over your head
an empty space left in the air.
from Miracle Atlas
Big Pencil Press, 2012
I try to meditate every day, and often it seems that no sooner do I sit on the cushion than some racket starts up: a dog barking next door or the roar of a truck as a family member pulls up the driveway. Doing nothing but sitting on a cushion and noticing one’s breath should not be so difficult, yet as Jay Leeming illustrates so wonderfully in this poem, our minds are immensely distractible, likely to latch onto any white noise or disruption around us. The point of meditation, however, as Leeming suggests, is not to sit with a straight back and perfectly calm mind; instead, watching the stream of our thoughts, no matter how odd or chaotic they are, somehow leaves us with more room to breathe after. There is no right or wrong way to meditate, and the fruits of such admittedly strange labor always come later for me, when I’m out in the world, when I can suddenly feel that “empty space left in the air” and give myself permission to stop and pay attention to whatever catches my eye. Perhaps we meditate not only “to let each thought/go,” but also to make room for more quiet moments of joy.