“How do you step from the top of a 100-foot pole?”
For me, this has always been a koan which resonated. It is as if it always pointed me toward non-thinking, even before I knew it was a koan, long before I had begun to sit regularly.
I had dropped out of Carleton to go to Morehouse College in Atlanta (one of the great Historically Black Colleges) grabbing a chance to participate more deeply in the Civil Rights Movement. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was based there. Carleton had had an exchange program with Morehouse’s sister school, Spellman College, for a couple of years. When they added an exchange with Morehouse, I jumped on the opportunity, applied and was accepted. Perhaps I was the only applicant.
But then the “exchange” was cancelled. No one from Morehouse wanted to come to Carleton. So I dropped out and enrolled at Morehouse.
Fish Out of Water
It was not what I expected. The Civil Rights Movement had moved on. The SNCC leadership were all in Mississippi working on voter registration. Morehouse was very Greek. My roommate was “Zeus”. I felt very, very white. But I met some very interesting people who gathered at history professor Howard Zinn’s house. Zinn had written a history of SNCC. He and his wife Ros were wonderfully welcoming. I was at their house a lot. It seems like I was there all the time that I was not in class or sleeping. I have no memory of eating. I met Staughton Lynd at their house. I had heard him speak at anti-nuke and civil rights rallies. His parents had written a sociology classic, Middletown.
But I was a fish out of water. The student body passion was to catch up with Georgia Tech, not my trip. Carleton, “the Harvard of the Midwest,” was already ahead of Georgia Tech. What was I doing? What was the right thing to do? Should I go back to Carleton after two weeks, not stay the semester? Was it neurotic to leave? Was it neurotic to stay? The proverbial donkey, starving between the piles of hay. Was it more neurotic to stick this out despite my discomfort? Was it more neurotic of me to be afraid of admitting a mistake, to be afraid of embarrassment?
For the first time in my life I was clearly aware of the limits of thinking.
I went back and forth. I couldn’t figure it out. I had read a little about Zen but I don’t know that I had ever heard of the 100-foot pole, but there I was. I knew, absolutely knew, that I had to take a step.
I went back to Carleton, a 24-hour Greyhound bus ride across the South to the Mississippi and then north, -- I walked around the St. Louis bus station neighborhood for an hour but didn’t see much of the city, enjoying the chance to stretch my legs, -- to Minnesota. I was beginning to appreciate my courage, -- to go to Morehouse and to acknowledge that it wasn’t what I expected, that I could reverse field, -- even though I was still a very frightened person.
It took courage to get married, -- looking at the pictures from my first wedding, I can see the fear in my face as I am walking down the aisle, -- but I was desperate to be an adult. We both were. It took less courage to end that marriage. We had been too young, too desperate. We both knew it. No hard feelings.
Ending my second marriage was much more difficult. I loved the “life.” We had a very sweet standard of living: a big house in a great neighborhood, a big circle of friends, dinners in the best Manhattan restaurants, opera, ballet.
I was miserable. A mid-life crisis, I knew. So stuck there at the top of my pole, I went back into therapy.
I bargained with Arthur, a new therapist. I didn’t want another 7-year analysis this time: Brief psychotherapy, let’s get this over in three months. Arthur agreed. But there I was in the fourth month, stuck on my pole.
I complained, “You had agreed to three months. I’m still miserable. Nothing has changed.”
Arthur responded, “I thought you would have left by now.”
Was that too much of a push? Wife number two packed up and moved out that evening. I was surprised the next morning to notice how much better it felt to sleep alone. But still I worried. By then, I knew about the pole. I had begun to sit regularly. I had done my first sesshin with Kyudo Roshi. Had it been too much of a push?
After twenty years with the New York State Office of Mental Health, I flew out to La Honda where Bernie was living in the midst of the redwoods. Should I take the early retirement, step from the top of the hundred foot pole, find out where this peacemaker path might take me? I went out hoping for an answer from Bernie. I don’t remember anything about the visit except the feeling that I could never live in such a place where the sun never shined, always in the shadows of great trees. I didn’t get any advice from Bernie but I knew on the plane ride home that I was going to step from another pole, after twenty years.
And now I have retired again. I had thought for years that I had been maturely planning for retirement, working on a succession plan with my team — but retirement was always five to ten years away and then five years away but always five years away. Suddenly it was seven months away. I was done. Dee and I made the decision at her birthday dinner in November on the deck of the Madison Beach Hotel overlooking Long Island Sound. We wouldn’t tell anyone but Morri for a month. We would let it percolate until my birthday. We would celebrate my birthday and our anniversary in Cape May where we had gone on our mini-honeymoon, a trip planned for our 25th anniversary but postponed a year because of COVID.
We ended up finalizing the decision a week earlier. I had a monthly lunch scheduled with our board chair. I didn’t want to sit on the top of that pole another month. I told her. I told my key people. We told others.
It has been a wonderful feeling, stepping from this pole — sometimes stressful — of stepping away again, of stepping into the Bardo, not knowing what is coming next.
How do you step from a 100-foot pole?
For years, my answer has been, “Again and again.” This Zen practice of ours is an unending practice. That is its wonder, its beauty.
Here I am again in the Bardo.
This time, recently home from our first real vacation since before the pandemic, in Portland, Maine, on the way back from Quebec, there is a new clarity.
There is no pole.
There never was a pole.
There was never anything to cling to.