Things seem to get better with age

“Just because something is old and used doesn’t mean you have to go out and replace it with a new one.” — Sodaiho Harvey Hilbert

When I was in graduate school I joined an order of Zen Buddhist practitioners who gathered twice annually in the snow-covered mountains of New Mexico for a silent meditation retreat. Our beloved abbot, a PhD professor at the university, guided the retreat and gave the kind of wisdom-laden, spiritual “dharma” talks that had us all sitting with straight backs on the edges of our buckwheat-filled zazen cushions, eager students wanting to be filled to the brim with new insight and green tea on Japanese style trays.

I must have been ready to hear what my Zen master had to teach, because over a decade later, his wisdom-filled words still resonate like the sound of the metal gong that is struck throughout the day to signal a shift in attention.

My master was a perfect one for my twenty-something body, as I was (and still am, to some degree), an avid runner. During my graduate school days, I didn’t feel quite right unless I ran at least 3 miles daily. In keeping with Zen Buddhist teachings, this of course could not remain permanent in my now 40-something-year-old body, though I have managed to live up to my master’s behest: “Decades from now,” he said to me, “I want you to come back to this monastery and do yoga on my porch.”

(I couldn’t respond to him at the time, because we were in a silent retreat). Let’s just say his words made a deep impression on me, and I wished very much to live up to it.

Sodaiho had us all running together for miles and competing in regional competitions where we sported our Zen-consciousness t-shirts that said “Stillness in Motion”. He cheered us on at the finish line because he always finished first, to our amazement. We were proud to be his students, and I’m sure he inspired me to keep striving for … well, come to think of it, nothing.

I mean, that was the whole point of running. To be in a state of motion without getting anywhere at all. To realize that the finish line was no different than each footfall during the race to nowhere. To be here… now.

So, I suppose that’s why I still go jogging years later, to practice stillness in motion, which is why I keep practicing yoga postures. It’s all a metaphor for life. No matter what the circumstances, don’t identify with your posture (attitudes, beliefs, opinions) and definitely don’t expect it to stay the same forever. (Have you ever been in a headstand posture before?)

Things change. They break, fall apart, go away, reappear, and get repaired. People. Things. Relationships. Jobs. Every. Thing. Changes. Constantly.

This morning, by the end of my jog, I discovered that my running shoes had worn out completely. I jogged the rest of the way home with my toes sticking out, socks getting soggy in the puddles. I smiled and remembered Sodaiho’s wise words during our retreat: “Just because something gets old doesn’t mean you have to go out and replace it with a new one.”

I’ve been using the same pair of old sneakers for 5 years and I’ve literally run them into the ground. I think they’re beyond repair. But I held onto them and used them until I couldn’t anymore. Why replace them with a shinier, newer brand? Like wine and cheese, most things seem to get better with age.

I’m learning to consider how this teaching applies to my significant relationships. I might be better at keeping sneakers than partners. I think that’s worth some deeper introspection. I’ve been discussing this with my neighbor, a wise and respected elder in my community. He’s taught me things that are more valuable than all the gold in the world.

In the folly of our youthfulness, we can forget the value of spending time with our elders, listening to their wisdom. When we know it all, pride could prevent us from appreciating the good that comes with age and experience.

This post is dedicated to my teacher, Sodaiho. (It’s because of you that my running shoes got so worn out). I’m still practicing. What else is there to do?

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The Craboo Man

I sat on a wooden bench—the kind you can’t seem to get comfortable in—waiting for the bus. I heard a man mumbling behind me. He sounded crazy, like he was talking to himself, which I think he was. Then he sat right beside me on the bench.

My first impulse was to grab my backpack and move. Far away. He smelled funny. His shirt, just a cheap t-shirt, was streaked with dirt and damp with sweat. His pants barely fit him; he had some kind of twine as his belt and the extra fabric bunched up in the front where his thin belly was showing.

I smiled and offered him a plantain chip from the bag I was munching out of, mostly to pass time while waiting for the bus. Something told me to just talk to this man. Just see what he has to say.

He politely declined the chip, sticking a finger in his mouth to reveal that he only had one tooth left. He spoke Spanish and so I asked, “De dónde es Ud?” (Where are you from?) although I could’ve guessed. Guatemala, he said. I’ve lived here (in Belize) since 1980.

I was only 4 then, I told him. To get the conversation going.

I asked him what he does for a living. I assumed from his ragged appearance and the dirty, worn bag he carried that he could be homeless. Especially since he’d sat beside me on a bench in the bus station.

I offered him the rest of my water. Again, he politely declined. He smiled and told me he was a farmer.

A farmer? What do you grow?

I live in a village south of here, he said. I grow avocados and nancé.

Oh, I know the nancé fruit, I said. Here in Belize they call it craboo. Tiny yellow berry-like fruits with a tangy-sweet flavor. They get sweeter if you leave them to ripen in the sun.

I have hundreds of fruit trees, he said. Every day I pick the ripe ones and sell them in the market. Today alone I already sold everything. 40 dollars worth. He smiled. I saw his one tooth and noticed his gritty fingernails, weathered hands. He seemed to be fulfilled. Completely at peace with everything.

I’m Roberto, he said. He added his last name. His dignity and pride overtook his downtrodden appearance and in that moment I realized I was talking to a man of great accomplishment.

I was humbled. Put to shame. What could I do, how, with what ingenuity and sheer willpower, I thought, could I just walk into this bustling marketplace and earn myself $40? It was only 10 in the morning. This guy had already earned a day’s worth of work. Selling fruits that he had grown, harvested and hauled in buckets to market.

Roberto, the guy I’ll remember as The Craboo Man, woke me up out of my slumber of privilege, only thinking I was comfortable on that bus station bench. He reminded me not to pass judgment based on appearance. To look deeper.

The Craboo Man has accomplished something most of us can only dream of. Contentment. Self-sufficiency. A simple, happy guy.