without an eraser

For many years, Santa has brought me a Page-A-Day calendar for Christmas.

During the first decade or so of getting calendars, the pages showed golf holes.  I used to play quite a bit and had the chance to experience courses around the country, so I looked forward to turning the page each day.  Sometimes, a hole was one I had seen only on television or in a book.  But it was exciting to revisit those that I had played (even though I often had to wince when thinking about how badly I had botched them) or, especially, to see a hole from my home course featured.

I have also received calendars highlighting words, puzzles, and places around the world.  For the last few years, I have gotten the Zen Page-A-Day calendar in my stocking.

Now, I wouldn’t characterize myself as deeply knowledgeable about Zen, so I can’t offer you any special insights.  And that’s after reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance several times over the years and writing six essays on it for one of my business blogs, but that book only obliquely deals with Zen.  And, in any case, it is a tough thing to pin down.

Is it a religion?  A philosophy?  A way of moving through the world?

One dictionary defines it this way:  Zen with a capital “Z” is the religion and zen (without the capital letter) is being “relaxed and not worrying about things that you cannot change.”  Whatever the definition, the influence of Zen sensibility on our culture is readily seen.  The surging interest in mindfulness can be traced to it, and many believers in “traditional” religions have been inspired by its practices, including Christian contemplatives, most notably Thomas Merton.

So, when I turn the page each day, what do I get?  A sentence or two to ponder, perhaps a bit of verse.  Some are from Zen teachers, but there are quotes from a wide range of sources.  Flipping through the upcoming pages, I can see the words of H.G. Wells, Frank Lloyd Wright, Maya Angelou, Charlie Chaplin, Emily Dickinson, and St. Augustine.  Quite a group.

Last year, one quote of interest was from John W. Gardner.  In a calendar full of writers and artists and religious figures, his list of accomplishments looks different, including being a cabinet secretary and the founder and/or leader of many notable American institutions.  Truly a remarkable life.

His quote:  “Life is the art of drawing without an eraser.”

As with many of the pages in the calendar, that one got me thinking.  Too often we obsess about our failures, hoping that a magic eraser will appear so that we can clean up the messy art of our lives.  (It isn’t going to happen.)

As a strategy, we might try to avoid mistakes, not taking any chances that could lead to errors in that perfect life that we dream of creating.  As a result, we’d end up with nothing at all.  I don’t think Gardner got his impressive résumé by not trying; surely he faced opposition, frustration, and failure.  We all do.

Maybe this is where that Zen principle of “not worrying about things that you cannot change” comes into play.  We can’t erase, we can only accept where we are right now — and decide what to draw next.

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