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Zen and the art of golf: An inquiry into trust

There’s already someone who has invented zen golf, but what my title here refers to is the book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (ZAMM), which is a 1974 philosophical novel, by Robert M. Pirsig. This book had a profound effect on me as a teenager. Since studying for a PhD has drop-kicked me into getting in touch with my inner geek, and reminded me of what it’s like to be a student again, the title of this post seemed appropriate.

I am back home. Scotland and the moist, northern light and ever-present sea and St Andrews and my wise, dear friends are there, and I am here, in klein kikkerland, or little frog country, as the Dutch call Holland. I stuffed my books into my car, drove four hours south through amazing beauty and the Scottish Borders–cattle on a thousand hills–sailed across the North Sea in a ferry from Newcastle to Ijmuiden, and was home. That’s me the day, they would have said in St Monans.

I fear my books have multiplied like rabbits in dark corners. As my car disgorged them, they quietly filled corners on all three floors of our house. They are there still, sagging in the plastic bags I had to pack them into when the cardboard boxes would not fit into my car. They have titles with words like peace and conflict and path.

The two weeks before I left were filled with playing golf. I played ten rounds of 18 holes in 14 days. And I got my handicap! But in the meantime, I memorized the wind and rain slapping my cheek and tearing my hair out of my visor. I recited the number of shots like a meditation as I watched the sun come and go, the sea turn from blue to gray, the gorse shine gold, and the far hills rise and fall.

And that’s where I got the idea of the zen of golf. I have learned many things during this year of being set apart for creativity and research. I have learned that one must let go to lay hold. That when we are afraid because we cannot control our world, then this fear is a friend because it signals the time to trust. I used to call them the foreign tribes of fear and think they had to be slain and banished from the land. Then I discovered fear as a friend, a warning system, a means of communication for my subconscious. How to befriend the foreign tribes? Sounds hauntingly close to International Relations. Listening, respect, trading stories, admiring each other’s children . . .

Some of you will know the motto of this season for me has been unexpected gifts at unexpected times. But to receive the gifts we must see them, anticipate them, trust in them. “I trust” are words like “I hope,” stabs in the dark that may just tear through the tapestry of terror to let the light in. I’m thinking Plato’s Cave here, which is another blog post all together.

What about the golf, you ask? Well just before I started playing my manic 180 holes in 14 days, I received my MA in International Relations. Somehow I managed to write a master’s thesis (they call it a dissertation in Scotland), and put together a research proposal for my PhD dissertation (they call it a thesis in Scotland). I don’t know how I did all that work. Dreading it in January, I remember calling my daughter and freaking. Now, looking back, all I can remember is sitting at my wee desk in my wee house in the wee fishing village of St Monans and watching the tide come in and go out as hours ticked by and pages were typed and books perused. Day after day after day. Until it was done. I woke every morning and thought, I trust. My friend and mentor here says this is a great gift. I agree.

In golf, there comes a moment during the swing when one must stop trying to control it, trust the muscle memory and surrender to the power as the head of the club smashes against the ball and sends it flying. The grip is important. My handicap-4 son tells me I need to keep my eye on the ball more.

In golf there are giant bunkers that swallow your ball. But you get down into the bunker, dig your feet into the sand, aim for an inch from the ball to dig it out, swing as fast and hard as you can and follow through, then do it over and over and over until the rescue is complete.

On golf courses there and here, I count up and down, walk up and down, swing up and down. It reminds me of the rhythm of the sea out my window in St Monans.

In golf a handicap is a good thing.

Now that I’m home, when I walk in my woods, I remember myself pre-Scotland, and see the memory of me in flat, sepia tones. But here I am in living color! The pending workload of continued research and reading and fieldwork, coupled with teaching would have terrified the old two-dimensional me. New me smiles softly and beckons.

“It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.”–Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

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