A few summers ago, thanks to a kind gesture from Paul Haller, I had the pleasure of providing some assistance with the poetry class he and Naomi Shihab Nye were teaching at Tassajara for the third summer. On the second day, Naomi appeared in the courtyard with a mystery. She had left her hairbrush in her bathroom and when she returned to her room, the brush was on the bed and around each bristle was a tuft of white fluff. We staged experiments to try to divine the source of this strange development. Naomi borrowed my brush and ran it through her white towel to see if that might have somehow been the cause, that maybe she wrapped the brush in her towel on the way back from the bathhouse. But no, not a thread came off.
Part of the conundrum was how quickly it happened. Was it the cat who matter-of-factly entered her room the night before? Was that a white cat? But even so, who brushed it? Was the kapok filling in a zafu somehow implicated? Again, nothing approached plausibility.
Naomi finally posited that it was the work of her father, who had died about a year earlier, and who in life was known for doing such things as planting fig trees in other people’s yards. She reasoned that the complete absence of any other explanation was his way of making sure she didn’t miss his greeting.
“Angel hair,” as my friend Bernd said.
For days, I kept thinking of Naomi’s hairbrush. It kept collecting theories, asserting quietly its investigation of unknowing. Maybe your hairbrush is a star nursery, I suggested to her. It became a sign of the space, the vents between worlds. Did dimensions meet at those bristles? Was it the firestruck Tassajara landscape restating itself?
After returning from the workshop, I listened to a talk by Enkyo Roshi, “Intimacy and Sangha,” and she was exploring the word for intimacy in Japanese “I love the word in Japanese, mitsu, which refers to the closeness of cotton batting in a futon, the threads of cotton all together, that’s mitsu, to be that close, to be familiar, deeply familiar.” I of course thought of Naomi’s hairbrush.
One morning recently, after breakfast, I came upon a scene founded in this kind of ease and close familiarity. Mike Sullivan, a Zen Center resident who has retired his professional haircutting shears for a while but still sometimes kindly offers his services (a pint of Three Twins ice cream seems to be a favored honorarium) was out in the courtyard with Shogen and Sebastian, Shogen’s 2 1/2-year-old son. It was clear immediately that this was not the usual first haircut, with its iconic images in which the child is shown howling, swallowed up in a cape, furious at the affront of a stranger he can only see in reflection running shears through his hair.
Here, far from recoiling, Sebastian stretched out in his footed pajamas on a long boulder slab, drinking juice through a straw as Mike sat behind him straddling the stone bench, working swiftly and gently, in that narrow window available in cutting a child’s hair, cutting the fine strands, letting them fly around the courtyard where they gathered at the edges of the plants. There was such kindness in every gesture of his skill. When Sebastian’s patience with the process flagged, he seemed encouraged knowing birds might like to find some of his hair and use it to make nests and he sat still a few minutes longer. And later, he gathered some up and offered it to the compost.
This whole scene arose so organically after breakfast; in just a few minutes, everything was in place. Just before the haircut was done, Sebastian sprang up and charged around the fountain six or seven times, laughing and shrieking and calling to Shogen to chase him. Then he sat back down with Mike and let him finish trimming around his eyes and ears.
In the service of trying to explore this phenomenon, I find myself eager to relate incident after incident where these connections unspool in ways that feel miraculous. I can never do justice to it all here. The temptation is to try to diagram it, but the lines extend and blur.
If I did attempt such a drawing, it would probably look like Naomi’s hairbrush.