Those pears were bruised,
their skin mottled
and darkened to maroon.
I discarded them all.
It was you who
cut one into four wedges
and offered it on a white napkin.
When I wrote this poem over two decades ago, I had no idea what the word koan meant. I might have heard it spoken or read it on the page, but I never sought out its definition. The poem came to me at a moment in my life when I was desperately seeking hope.
When I revisited this poem a year ago, while in the throes of creating my chapbook “Awakening”, I had no choice but to include it. Though my relationship to it is complicated for reasons I’ll set aside for now, I consider “Pears” one of my more successful poems, both for its simplicity of language as well as its vivid imagery. Yet, not until I chose it as one of three poems to read at Straw Dog’s recent 7th Annual Author Showcase, did I confront the poem’s meaning from an entirely new perspective. It’s actually a koan meant to teach me one of the most important lessons I have yet to learn.
The word koan, according to Merriam-Webster’s definition, means
a paradox to be meditated upon that is used to train Zen Buddhist monks to abandon ultimate dependence on reason and to force them into gaining sudden intuitive enlightenment.
Stretching that literal definition, I now read “Pears” through a new and paradoxical lens; namely that imperfections — in this case, the mottled, bruised pears — may actually be a blessing, not a curse. Implicit in the last three lines of the poem is the notion that the ugliness of those pears was transmuted into a vision of beauty not by the narrator, but by someone presumably close to her, in an act of generosity, by slicing one into four wedges and presenting it on a white napkin.
Here’s the insight, simply put — instead of resisting imperfections — in myself, in other people, places and things all around me, embracing them with acceptance instead has the potential to reduce suffering for myself. Even more important, such an insight will cause others to suffer less by my words and actions.
Truth be told, it will take me at least two life cycles to move this discovery from a simple insight to enlightenment.
No matter. It’s the journey, not the destination, that matters.