Life of Carmen

Sewing robes

I am sewing. This is Zen code for sewing robes, which means I am officially headed toward ordination as a Zen priest. ‘Are you excited?’ asked a friend. No, I’m not excited. I am curious and more than a little terrified. I’ve done lots of weird things in my life but taking on Zen priesthood is way up there. I don’t know how I’ll feel when the day arrives. All I know for sure is that it demands a lot of stitchery, and that shaving my head in November is going to be cold.

I’ve been fumbling along this path for ten years, since the August day when I washed up at the door of the Upaya Centre in Santa Fe and immediately knew I’d come home. It feels a little like running Zeno’s foot race – with each step time has slowed down, to the point where I am neck-and-neck with the turtle. In 2016 this ordination thing seemed like a really good idea, and when I broached the subject teacher Michael grinned and said he was not surprised by my request, and both he and Kate seemed pleased. My teacher duo conferred their joint blessing, and I was given the nod to start sewing. But then my life took a twist and a turn (imagine that, says she, with thin self-sarcasm). I got married, to a man who did not appreciate my eccentric path. I convinced myself this would be ok. It wasn’t. It was distracting and exhausting, and by the time I extricated myself from that relationship I felt sapped and diminished. And then came the pandemic. I inched forward for two years, struggling to find sangha in the little bitty boxes on screen. Feeling very alone in this vague and Herculean task. 

And yet I’m still at it. Here I sit on the clifftop by my green turtle schoolbus, stitching away at my endless okesa – the plain black over-the-shoulder wrap, cut into pieces to render the material “worthless” and then painstakingly re-assembled by hand to render it priceless — which Dogen Zenji, the 13th-century Soto poobah, claims will protect me from the talons of a golden Garuda. I’ve been at this one bit of stitchery for over a year now, and it would surely go faster if I could listen to podcasts or watch Netflix while I sew, but that’s not allowed. With each tiny emerald-green stitch I take refuge: in the buddha, the dharma, the sangha. In my own greater intelligence, in the wisdom of all my teachers (including the Buddha and the rocks and tiles and honeybees), and in the benevolent and confounding web of humanity. If there is no refuge to be found here, then where is courage to be found? 

I have sent my deposit (in hefty American dollars) to Kaaren in the deep woods of Wisconsin, who has begun to construct my koromo – the priest’s outer robe, which, while voluminous, still requires precise measurements and numerous mediaeval box pleats. It is black, of course (priest garb being available in all the colors of a Model T Ford), and made of swiss cotton voile – I run warm so am going ultra-light, figuring I can always layer on a Helly Hansen undie set as needed. And while formally elegant the koromo, like most monastic gear, was designed two thousand years ago for people without breasts. It might be shapeless but at least I won’t outgrow it, and it will never go out of style. Kaaren is fairly optimistic that it will be completed and mailed by November, with each stage observed and approved by Edmund and Thrallbert, Kaaren’s two large box turtles. Slow and steady as she goes.

But, wait, there’s more! I also need a kimono – the pale grey cotton nightie that goes under the koromo – and a juban, the criss-cross white shirt that goes under all the rest. I am reasonably confident I can sew those bits at home on my Bernina with guidance from Jenn, my patient sewing mentor. And then there is a bowing cloth which hides inside one enormous koromo sleeve (embellished with a daring splash of green), a new rakusu (almost done), oryoki cloths, and fancy bags for it all. 

As a zennie colleague said, being a priest is 90% fabric management. It unfolds layer upon layer, revealing truth and mystery. It is pragmatic and ridiculous, rational and absurd. It is ancient beauty. It is mind-bending paradox. It is timeless, it is earthy, it is vast. It takes forever.  

Image: Thrallbert, by Kaaren Wilken

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