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Updated: Dec 18, 2023

Before I forget. As I’m sure you’re aware, we’re coming down to the end of the year. Some of you may already be thinking about taxes. Some of you may still be wondering where to put your charitable dollars. Want to help some kids who are grieving? It’s easy. Just log onto . Want to make me happy? In the message space, write “Ken’s mala” and donate at least $108. Do that, and I’ll burn your name on a bead on my new mala. I’ll wear it everywhere. You will be with me on my journey. I would love that. 

A couple of weeks ago, when I was talking about “The Candle,” I recalled my first experience with Te-shan and his teacher Lung-t’an, recollecting that I had probably succeeded in entering the koan then at the moment when the studious Te-shan burns all his notes about the Diamond Sutra.

As much as I was drawn to the philosophical argument, that path would only take me down a rabbit hole. I saw enough of myself in Te-shan to present the koan to Roshi Bob. I must have passed. I went on to the next Koan. But I didn’t burn my books. I have been carrying them around with me since I graduated from college.

Now, Dee and I are trying to prepare for downsizing, not right away but eventually, and between us we have collected so much stuff. It’s amazing. When we moved into our house, we had barely one piece of furniture for each room. There are some rooms now, on the third floor, that you can barely walk into. Earlier this week, I was up there trying to see what books I could stop carrying around with me.

Books are a big part of what I’ve been accumulating, books that I’ve been collecting since college and books of my mother and books of father. I did my first and only major book purge when I moved to Staten Island 30 years ago. I had thought I’d be able to sell my books. I had so many feet of books that a second-hand dealer came out from Manhattan for a look, so many sociology books that I had collected during my years in academia. The guy looked at my shelves. He wasn’t interested. By then I’d been out of academia 10 years, and no one was buying my books. Oh well, I’ll give them to the public library. No thanks. The library wouldn’t take them. I left them in boxes on the curb, hoping someone would salvage them before the sanitation got them.

But I kept so many books. Some I had read. Some I have been carrying from place to place unread since I graduated from college 60 years ago. So many have always been on the list of books that I was going to read when I retired. Or reread, read more thoroughly than I did when I raced through them on an undergraduate deadline.

I am looking this week at these shelves of books, now almost two years into retirement, and I am now ready to say, No. Some of these books I am never going to read. Maybe it took a year and a half of retirement to begin to see what was ahead. Maybe until recently, I was still so focused on where I had been that I couldn’t see where I was going.

Maybe the discipline of downsizing is providing the energy to face the past. Looking at these mirrors of earlier moments in my life, some of them happy, joyous moments, so many stories come back to me. I am smiling to myself. I can still tell the stories. I don’t have to carry the books.

This week I packed up three boxes, and in doing so noticed that there were books that were gone already, no longer on the shelf, apparently the victims of an earlier, forgotten purge.

So many memories. I am smiling, remembering my radical political past, my 20’s and 30’s. There on the shelf were some very heady radical, neo-Marxist books that I had bought in those days and never read. “Face it, Ken,” I smile, “those days are gone for you.” I know it. I have more than enough writing projects in front of me lined up. I am not going back to those books. Into the box they go.

There is still a lot of sociology on the shelves. A few years ago, I flirted with some of them, took them off the shelf, carried them downstairs. I took a shot at dealing with some of my unfinished business. I had worked so hard on my dissertation and was proud in varying degrees at what I had written as I wended my way through the doctoral program. My language, my style, in those days was too convoluted and pretentious to be readable. I had learned a lot and maybe I could say it more clearly now.

I took a shot at rewriting my thesis, took the rewrite through a couple of iterations before realizing — I guess it shouldn’t be surprising — that the sociology in it has receded in importance. After all it is 50 years since I wrote it, 40 years since I left my career as a professional sociologist in the rearview mirror. What I learned in writing the dissertation has been transmuted through the years, first by my psychotherapy practice and then by Zen. There is still a story to tell, but it is probably far more memoir than sociology.

I put the sociology books into a separate box. Morrigan is taking a sociology course this Spring. Maybe one of the books will come in handy. I keep smiling. Probably not. Sociology has moved far beyond. My guys have probably all been forgotten.

I go onto the books from my psychotherapy years. Most of what was current at the time seems irrelevant now. I am hanging on to my Freud. I am hanging on to my Piaget. There was a great intellectual adventure there for me. I might want to revisit those planets, but I have no delusions that I am going back to psychotherapy practice. Years ago, I let my social work license lapse into retirement mode. But I still think I may want to revisit my “youth.”

The management books are almost all gone already. When I was retiring from ICS, I brought a couple of boxes into the office, left them as a reference library for our management team. For all I know, ICS tossed them as soon as I was out the door.

There’s still a lot of fiction there. I’m not tossing that, although I’m not sure that I am ever getting to it or back to it. My father’s books and my mother’s books. Last year I read my father’s Moby Dick. He was after me to read it all my life, and all I’d ever managed, probably at least half a dozen times was the first couple of chapters. Last summer I tried his Don Quixote. Couldn’t hack it.

I’m reading my mother’s Wings of the Dove now. It puts me to sleep, but I am trying to learn from James. I’m reading my mother’s paperback edition. She was reading James and Dickens at the end of her life. I tried Nicholas Nickleby but couldn’t hack it. When she bought it, her Wings cost her $1.45.

There are books that I read that I loved, but that’s all that I remember, that I loved them, Faulkner, Morrison, Gordimer. I have to read them again. But when?

I will reread Where Angels Fear to Tread on vacation this winter. Or at least, I’ll give it a try.

And there are shelves of philosophy, shelves that I am not ready to part with. Probably two shelves of the Ancient Greeks, Plato and Aristotle, and commentaries about them. There’s another shelf of Existentialism, Sartre and a lot of Heidegger. The Existentialists were an early love. My friend Jim Breslin — we shared an office at Brookdale in the early 70’s — gave me a copy of Being and Time when I left there for my first teaching gig. It was on my retirement reading shelf for almost 50 years, and as soon as I retired, I did pick it up. I couldn’t get into it. Still. Even with all the leisure of retirement. But I am not ready to give it up or any of the other Heidegger.

And then there’s another shelf: everything Wittgenstein ever wrote, most of which I did manage to read in grad school, and a lot of ordinary language philosophy and a lot of commentary on Wittgenstein.

None of the philosophy went into the boxes, but I was thinking as I came downstairs — the dust was getting to be too much, I needed to wash my hands and face and get a drink of water — that maybe it was time for me to let Kant go. I have been carrying around everything by Kant that I could get my hands on as well as some commentary since my freshman year at Carleton. I am not sure how it happened, but I ended up in a philosophy course, Ethics, with David Sipfle who was far and away my most inspiring teacher freshman year.

We read The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. I was fascinated and probably wrote about it every chance I got that year, but that’s all I remember. There’s a half a shelf of Kant. I haven’t put it in the box yet, but I know that when the actual downsizing happens, maybe in the last moment of deciding what we’re taking with us and what we’re giving away, Kant is going into the giveaway box. He is never going to make onto my rereading list, but if somehow he does, he’s probably all there online.

Roshi Bernie used to make the distinction between realization and actualization. He had a semi-humorous way of illustrating the point. He was a scientist. He knew all about the health dangers of his cigar habit. That was a realization. Actualization would be if he finally gave up his cigars. “Humorous” because Bernie didn’t so often really poke fun at himself. “Semi” because we all worried that he was killing himself with his cigars.

I have tended to look at actualization as akin to the sudden awakening of kensho. My re-experience of Te-shan is reminding me that perhaps it doesn’t always happen at once, in a single flash, although it may have for Te-shan. Most koans that I passed years ago are still working on me, taking me deeper. I am blown away that Te-shan got it all at once. I’m still peeling the onion, clipping away at threads of conditioning. Thank God, I saw the rabbit hole, but I’ll hang onto these books anyway. Maybe I’ll come back to them. Someday.

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