|I am a bean counter from way back. It seems odd to me that it is so, given the trauma of my learning how to count. I have vivid memories of sitting on the front porch with my father going through the addition and multiplication tables. He had little patience and though I did not know how to count, I did know that. With each error that I made I could feel his patience dwindling, which increased my anxiety, which increased my errors, which increased his frustration and you can see where that would go.After having learned to count, I noticed that I was counting a lot of things. Cracks in the sidewalk on the way to school or the number of breaths I took in a given distance on that walk. Having learned that counting correctly relieved me from the anxiety of my father’s wrath, I had come to find counting comforting in general. Even now I notice myself counting the number of clicks my turn signal makes before I turn. I tend to shun setting up automatic payments for various recurring bills. Keeping track of when to pay what and how much has been something I’ve been doing for a long time. Though I did not keep a journal while traveling I do have notebooks that tell me how much I spent on various things while traveling, like the 12 Afghanis it costs for breakfast in Kabul on June 15th 1974.
During this time of pandemic and sheltering in place, I have noticed a deterioration in my ability to keep track of things. I have uncharacteristically missed credit card payments and keeping track of my appointments has become a challenge. In the midst of feeling overwhelmed by all of the things that are falling through the cracks, things that need to be done and that are past due, this koan about counting the stars paid me a visit.
I am reminded of the myth of Psyche and Eros and the task of sorting seeds that Aphrodite gave to Psyche. The theme is echoed in the Russian folktale of Vassilisa, and her cruel stepmother, who sends her to face the forest witch Baba Yaga, who tells Vassilisa she must sort a pile of seeds. Cinderella’s cruel stepmother gave her a similar task of sorting seeds. In each of these stories, the young girl is helped in her “impossible task” by birds or ants, the spirits of earth and air and forest come to her aid. Koans are like that. They seem to come to our aid when faced with impossible tasks, like putting all heartache to rest. Sorting seeds, like counting is a practical, ordinary task and in myths and fairytales, as in our lives, it can lead to transformation and transcendence.