Zen Quaker

Long Hill (plein air) Russell Steven Powell acrylic on canvas, 10x8
Long Hill (plein air) acrylic on canvas, 10×8

THIS BEING SUNDAY in the Age of Pandemic, it’s time for some religion — especially after last night’s epiphany. After all these years, I finally learned my true religious identity. I am a Zen Quaker.

I just looked it up, and to my surprise, I am not the only one. It’s not an organized religion, and Zen Quaker means different things to different people. But it encompasses many of my beliefs. 

Since the beginning of May I have been rising early daily and walking for about two hours before breakfast, nominally to look for wild asparagus along the dike by the Connecticut River.

I’ve done this annually for nearly 20 years, but never so religiously. This year, it has become a form of devotion. The coronavirus, ironically, has been a catalyst for this life-affirming practice.

Like most people during the pandemic, I have been experiencing higher-than-usual levels of stress. I have always found solace in nature; this spring I need it more than ever.

As a painter, these walks should be mandatory. There is the exercise and fresh air, of course, and the exquisite early light. More important, I experience a profound appreciation of color, shape, and texture as I search among the many similar-looking plants and grasses for the dozen or so precious stalks I discern along a two-mile stretch.

The walks are also thinking time — or the end of thinking as I know it. En route to the dike, my mind is abuzz from a fresh night’s sleep and morning caffeine. I’m filled with thoughts about whatever cares or worry I carried overnight. It takes time, space, and solitude to work it all out. The walks supply them all.

Once empty of to-do lists and fretting over things I cannot control, my mind slowly fills back up. I become more alive and alert to my surroundings, sensitive to the boundless energy flowing around me, constant as the river, in every living thing: a mockingbird’s beautiful but frantic-sounding songs, a slow bumblebee cradling clover, a family of foxes scurrying for cover, a blade of grass bending in the wind, shadowing a rock.

Divinity to me is not the Creator or Supreme Being (or as my mother would say, “the man upstairs), but the Life Force, the energy that animates all living things, from snail to coyote, asparagus to oak. 

I find divinity in sunlight, water, soil, and breeze. It is the stunning blossom and the stinging bee, probiotics and coronavirus, humble reminders of the primacy and potency of nature in ways that are both good and bad, depending on the species.

Long Hill (plein air) 2, Russell Steven Powell acrylic on canvas, 8X10
Long Hill (plein air) 2, acrylic on canvas, 8X10

FOR AS MANY YEARS as I have been foraging for asparagus, I have had a swimming pool in my back yard. It is a mixed blessing. It is beautiful to look at, surrounded by gardens, and a sublime pleasure on a hot summer day.

But the pool is covered with a tarp for eight months a year, and it requires daily maintenance during the other four.

In the past, I have often seen the daily task of skimming the pool’s surface as an unwelcome chore, especially at the end of a long day, and especially at this time of year, when the neighboring butternut trees drop hundreds of spent flowers. 

Thanks in part to the pandemic, lately I have been experiencing this work in a more positive way. 

As darkness approached last night, I found myself looking forward to skimming the pool. To do so felt like a privilege; a gift, not an obligation. Gliding over the surface of the water again and again until it is clean is soothing. It calms my mind and draws my awareness to the water’s purity and necessity as profoundly as my morning walks nourish my spirit and deepen my appreciation of the natural world.

The ritual silence, contemplation, and daily devotion evoke both Quakerism and Zen. There was something else Zen-like about my night at the pool. 

Nothing changed except my attitude. The pool is the same as before. The amount of debris is the same. It still needs daily clearing. All that has changed is my perspective. And that makes all the difference.

Farmland 2, Russell Steven Powell acrylic on canvas, 8X10
Farmland 2, acrylic on canvas, 8X10

8 Replies to “Zen Quaker”

  1. What a joy it was to read this Russ, and see the vibrant Zen paintings. It makes me feel lighter and more hopeful today! Thank you

  2. Reading this lovely essay is like meditating. It brings to mind Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki.

    1. Thank you, Christine. I appreciate it. I will look up Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind! I hope you are managing your own woodland foraging, and painting what you see.

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