By Sandi Simons When I was asked to write an article for our Sangha’s newsletter on the topic of “Ripening Practice: Gifts along the Path,” I thought my upcoming trip to Deer Park Monastery would be the perfect time to reflect. Little did I know the wonderful gift I would receive.
I watched out the window of the shuttle all the way from the San Diego airport to Deer Park Monastery. I had never been to California before and wanted to take in all the sights. There were so many buildings and highways, but what struck me most were the palm trees; they were taller than a lot of buildings and I could easily see them on the skylines above the city. With their straight trunks and spray of fronds on the top, they reminded me of natural fireworks.
Seeing these trees sparked a memory in me from long ago: I was sitting with my grandmother, Irene, in her living room; we must have been watching a TV show with a setting far from Montana, where we lived, because she said, “I wish I could have seen a palm tree in real life.” When this memory came up, many emotions did as well.
Memories of my grandmother: her laughter; her slow shuffling walk; the never-empty pitcher of orange Kool-Aid; the bottomless candy drawer kept always within a child’s reach; her patience and her ability to forgive. When I went to the University of Montana in Missoula, I lived with her; it helped me save money and gave her some company, since my grandfather had passed away shortly before that. After I moved away in 2000, I regretted that I hadn’t spent more time with her and done more for her. There always seemed to be something more important to do. I felt ashamed that I put my needs first and was frustrated and impatient with her so many times.
In 2002, while living in Glasgow, Montana, I was alerted that she might not live much longer so I drove down to Missoula to spend time with her. I wanted to apologize to her, but it never seemed like the time was right. Two weeks later, I was back home and had a feeling I should call her. We spoke on the phone for some time but then visitors came to her room and our conversation was cut short. Again, I didn’t tell her my regrets. That night she passed away.
I felt then that there would be no way I could resolve these feelings, that I would just need to “get over it,” but the feelings persisted and surfaced whenever I thought of her. I broke one of her mixing bowls some years after she passed, and cried for hours. Pat, my husband, couldn’t understand what was wrong and I couldn’t tell him because I didn’t understand either.
I carried these regrets and feelings until 2007, when I started sitting with Open Way Sangha in Missoula and learned of Thay’s teachings. I began to understand these emotions, or internal knots, and how to slowly loosen them through mindfulness, loving kindness, and the teachings on interbeing. The knots grew weaker as I practiced but I could still feel them when I thought of her.
The sight of palm trees brought all these memories to mind along with sadness that she was never able to see these wondrous plants. As I walked up the hill in Deer Park past the meditation hall, I slowed to a stop where the road branches off to the dining area. A group of palm trees grew there and as I walked up to them, a smile started at my mouth and traveled up to my eyes, which, like my grandmother’s, are brown. She was the only grandparent with brown eyes, and she passed them on to my dad and he on to me. The sadness and old regrets fell away with the wisdom of interbeing, the knowledge that I am a continuation of my ancestors and that at this very moment my grandmother was seeing the palm trees, too. I felt her presence, and that of my other ancestors, throughout the retreat and during the ordination ceremony. I knew they were all present in me.
The knots of regret and sadness haven’t resurfaced since I returned from Deer Park. That is one gift of many that this practice has given me. It has given back to me the sweet memories of my grandmother.
Sandi Simons, True Flower Garden, lives near Bozeman, Montana, with her husband, Pat, and two four-legged teachers, Doc and Cisco. She sits with the Bozeman Zen Group and participates in retreats with Open Way, Flowing Mountains, and Open Sky Sanghas. When she’s not working, you can find her gardening, hiking, volunteering at the local animal shelter, or curled up with a book.