It had been a long dry spell for Dallas, even for the summer. Little in the way of significant rainfall had happened since early June, and the ground was cracked and dry, the lakes and creeks fading. Until about a couple of weeks ago, that is, when storm clouds quietly moved into the sky with little of the drama that often accompanied past rains in this part of the country. The air filled slowly with grayness. After brooding silently for a while, like old actors preparing to perform on a long vacant stage, the clouds finally stepped forward and cleared their throats with a few barely perceptible gurgles, and it began to rain. And rain.
I did not wake up to meet my friend early Saturday morning for our regular run around nearby White Rock Lake—it was still raining steadily, and I had told him to go without me if I didn’t show up by 6:30. I took my time getting up, did a few errands, and by early afternoon the rain had finally slowed to a fine, intermittent mist. I couldn’t put it off any longer, so I headed toward the lake for a solo run.
As I got out of my car and stood facing the lake in my running clothes, I breathed the rain-washed freshness of the air. Squinting into the clouds of mist hanging over the lake’s suddenly lively surface, everything around me wet, gleaming, and dripping, I felt as if I stood at the cradle of something unfamiliar and primal—a newborn world, a scruffy child pushed squirming, wet, and steaming, from the cosmic womb. My mind turned to the biblical story of creation, which I had recently been rereading for the first time since beginning my Zen practice.
The oldest story in the Bible is of how the universe and man came to be, expressed in the ancient rhythms and evocative drama of the first two chapters of Genesis. It’s one of my favorite narratives, old or new, from any tradition, a masterpiece of the storyteller’s art that blends creation stories from different cultures and traditions. Much of its richness and poignancy can be diluted by some religious literalists, those bent on proclaiming Genesis as the definitive account of how it all got started. In reaction, others choose to simply dismiss it all as irrelevant ancient mythmaking. Each side is convinced that they know, they understand, they can explain. Certainty from any quarter makes me uneasy.
It took me a long time to start learning that there is a kind of peace in mystery, in surrendering to not knowing. I feel that sense of mystery every time I start out on a run, even a run down a familiar road or trail. It can be the same street or trail I have run down many times before, but it’s also different in a thousand subtle ways: the freshly fallen branch of a tree blocking the path, a new family of rabbits scattering in the dimness in front of me, a shifting of rose or orange in the dawn’s palette. The more aware I become, the newer it all seems, the deeper the mystery seems to go. Having run in many races, from five kilometers to over fifty miles, I find I still always prefer starting lines to finish lines—the open and seemingly limitless potential of a beginning, versus the dictatorial and often artificial finality of an end.
I began my lake run on a trail shiny with new rainwater. As I started my running meditation—letting my breath come and go, silently intoning mu with each exhalation—I first became acutely aware of the sound of birdcalls. The rain had gifted the lake with overflowing, flooding fresh water, and flocks were gathering in noisy celebration. Every time I intoned mu, each bird’s unique call came to me distinctly out of the racket—the calls spaced randomly near and far, in every direction. There was the buzzing of the red-winged blackbirds, the busy burble of the mallards and whitebilled coots, the deep croaking of the migrating cormorants and American white pelicans, the exotic chattering of the lake’s refugee flock of green parrots. A brimming, raucous concerto of life. It felt as if the birds were chanting mu with me, eager to tell the story of their transformed home.
I slowed down for a dark patch on the path just ahead: a tiny baby turtle, washed up on the running trail by the storms. Stooping to pick it up, I watched it shrink into its shell, dripping with mud and rain as if it were a living sculpture carved fresh out of the earth. I found a leafy gully away from the trail and left the turtle there, then kept going.
I ran past the spillway, just below the dam. What had long dried into the barest of trickles, no more than enough for a few gulls to land and get their feet wet on the spillway’s sloping concrete surface, had transformed overnight into a broad, foaming explosion of water, filling the air with clouds of mist. Slowing a bit, I jogged past a crowd of people lined up along the spillway fence to watch. An older woman and her husband huddled close to each other and simply gazed into the massive, raging surge just below them. Everyone silent, eyes on the thundering water.
Even though we’re making our way through an enormous mystery, we often think we do a pretty good job of trying to explain just how things are—until we actually experience the thing we’re trying to explain. Then we realize our words and ideas are like trying to grab a single drop of rain in a thunderstorm. There is an old Zen saying that you can try to explain to someone how an orange tastes, but how can you describe it, really? Until you’ve tasted an orange, you have no way of truly knowing. And once you’ve tasted one, what is there to say? The water rushing over the spillway and the birds crying above it were saying everything that needed to be said, and for once no one seemed to feel the need for explanations.
I continued into the final miles of my run, winding around the gentle curves of the western shore. Overhead the grayness repeatedly folded and turned in on itself, reflected in the restless, rippling surface of the lake. The birds circled and dove, circled and dove. A breeze picked up and pushed waves hard into the shallows against the cattails, where striped bass thrashed. Everything from the skies to the earth in perpetual motion, sounding a vast chorus of mu. “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters…”
What is creation? What is evolution? What do we really mean by “God,” or “science”? What is this tiny turtle baptized in mud, the squish of my Mizunos heavy with rain, these discarded cans and bottles bobbing in the boiling shallows, the whirring twitter of a red-winged blackbird hunched on the tip of a reed, the rumble of a jet engine somewhere far above it, this toddler bundled in a stroller, clutching her tiny fists and staring fearlessly at everything as I run by? What is this, and this, and again this?
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “What we cannot speak of, we must pass over in silence.” When running, I pass over or by many things in silence—thankfully often without the breath to add my own commentary. Instead of trying to answer the questions, perhaps living them is the right way… moving along this lake path and letting the world rain on me, soak into me, without my adding a single thing other than the sound of my breath, the tread of my running shoes.
As I came to the final couple of miles, a stooped older man was moving slowly but determinedly forward just ahead. I passed him and he turned to me, smiling freely and squinting at the breeze blowing a fine mist into our faces.
“Great day, isn’t it?” he said.
“It feels terrific,” I said, and we both kept moving forward on the path through the misting rain, fellow travelers in a journey through a universe recreated in every passing second, a genesis told and experienced for the first time again, and again.
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