Posts Tagged ‘Death’

a grand view

May 26th, 2020    -    3 Comments

One afternoon last week I went for a walk along Grand View Avenue. You can see the name spelled Grandview in some spots around here, but I think that’s just the careless fault of a human hand. Or maybe someone second-guessed the waste of an empty space and shoved the words together. I’m almost sure the intended name was Grand View because of its once-splendid view from the northernmost tip of our town near the top of the San Gabriel foothills.

These days, with the sky clean and bright, you can appreciate what the name promised a hundred and twenty years ago. If your homestead had been perched high enough, you could see over trees and rooftops to the vast stretch of flatlands to the south, then beyond a rim of short hills, and on a good day, all the way to the coast and the dark blue forever.

This day on Grand View was sunny and hot and I wasn’t alone on the street, although I felt invisible. People passed, some in close groups, none wearing a mask. Cars, once extinct, raced by. An SUV slowed its roll as it came to the intersection I was crossing, then whipped into a right-hand turn before I came too close to halt its motion. I get it: it’s killing us to stay home this long and like death to keep still. Aren’t we over all this? How much time can we lose?

I came across a dead squirrel on the sidewalk. I got the feeling I was the first to see it, stiffened not ten steps from someone’s front door. It was sad to come face-to-face with what we miss in our careless haste, what we overlook in our mad escape. I said a chant, which was all I could do for the lifeless squirrel and this restless world, stopped for a moment in the empty space on Grand View.

“All in a Good Day” a new dharma talk

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

majestic

May 14th, 2020    -    3 Comments

“What is it like to live in a painting?” a guest once enthused about the view from my kitchen sink.

It’s not a painting. It’s life, and being life, it’s equal parts death.

So I recognize the shape that is too fleet to be seen, the finality that is too grim to grasp. It’s the heron! One of the reapers that cull our fish on flights north, then south again, two seasons a year.

Up close, herons are exquisitely beautiful. An audience with a heron can freeze you in the shock of good fortune. Only these visitors don’t come for a swim, and the good fortune doesn’t extend to the fish. Even for a Buddhist, it’s difficult to take this sort of outcome sitting down.

These days the heron is observing a stay-at-home order. May is typically two months past the migration north, but his stony gray stillness is perched over the pond in the early morning and late afternoons. I suppose there’s no reason for him to go anywhere, no hurry, with food stocked, and all the time in the world. The rules and routines are broken. For all of us.

People are awed by herons. They call them majestic. True. But they come here for only one reason.

So too the hawk I saw swoop across the yard last week. I heard a frenzy of songbirds before he made his elegant approach. Then no songbirds.

It’s hard to appreciate a predator’s appetite, his relentless power and precision killing.

But this is how it is. This is how it is.

Photo by Caroline Cameron on Unsplash

what my mother taught me

April 13th, 2020    -    19 Comments

It was an attribute of her deep faith and her final, modest confusion that my mother believed she was dying on Easter, and it was, for her. But for the rest of us it was in the dark night after Maundy Thursday, the day commemorating the Last Supper when, in facing certain death, Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment to love one another as he had loved them. Months before this day my mom had taken quiet confidence in me, telling me what she wanted for her funeral, what she wanted for her body, and asking me to write her obituary. Permission was thus tacitly granted to each other to proceed as we must. At her funeral I rose to say these words. They were not the first thing I had ever written, but they were the first thing I had ever written for myself, to be spoken in my own voice. This is the kind of thing that a mother can teach you. I have remembered it always, and especially on this day every year.

I wanted to share a few things with you about my mother. I’m sure you already know them. They are what bring you here today.

Nonetheless, over the last few months, she said some things that I wanted to pass along. She has probably been saying them to me all my life, but I suspect I heard them, finally, for the first time.

Just last weekend she looked at me, clear-eyed and steady, and told me what I’ve come to recognize as her final instructions.

“Be yourself,” she said. “And take good care of your family.”

Now you know that my mother could never, for one minute, be anything but herself. Honest, unselfish, unpretentious, lighthearted, optimistic and, in a way, so ordinary. So ordinary that she was, in fact, extraordinary. It drew people to her, to her comfort and ease. So open and accepting. So authentic. And so happy!

She kept all the cards and notes you all sent over the course of her illness. Hundreds and hundreds, perhaps even a thousand. She kept every one and everyday, more came. She was so uplifted, and in a way, mystified at the magnitude.

I told her that they showed how much she was loved. “Yes,” she said, and she shook her head in disbelief. “And just for being me.” read more

where mothers go

December 13th, 2019    -    10 Comments

A few months ago I called our tree guy Danny to come over and dispose of the dead. It used to be that I could go years and years without even thinking of death or disposal, but nowadays we see all around us the fallout of our bald-faced climate catastrophe. This time it was a couple of towering English yews, evergreen columns that were planted a hundred years ago along the formal pathways to the garden. An arborist once told me that English yews weren’t even supposed to grow here, but ours were a scrappy bunch, soldiering through a century of summers until the last five months of sunlight just incinerated them. Poof! Gone. Danny made quick work of the old bones, hauled them to the curb and pulverized them, and that’s when I saw what had been going on out of sight all the while.

It must have been just after I moved here in 1997 that my mom sent me a housewarming gift — a potted plant. In the 1990s, flower arrangements hadn’t yet become posh or exotic. They were pretty standard-issue, and to a thrifty consumer like my mom (and me), a waste of good money. In those days there was an industry devoted to houseplants, or rather, keeping houseplants alive, with books and fertilizers and misters and music and such, until we all found out we could kill a heck of a lot of houseplants either way and swung back to sending flowers, only a lot fancier, with pansies and ranunculus and artisanal grasses.

Anyway, my mom sent me a houseplant that was actually two little plants fitted into a blue ceramic pot, and it grew indoors by a sunny window for a while before it turned mildewed and yellow and I put it outside. I didn’t forget about it, not ever, but I didn’t look at it or fuss with it or even care about it except if I should catch a glance of it in the shade, under the yews, in the damp by a leaky spigot, I would think about Mom, gone now since 2001.

Because, you see, one way or the other you’re going to think about your Mom or Dad, and come to know in that bracing way that hits you after they die that life goes on and so you do too, and it doesn’t in any way diminish who they were or weren’t. You get over, is what I’m saying, and go on about your life.

And so Danny lifts up the bower of dead yew by the spigot, and says lookee here at the pittosporum that has busted through its blue ceramic pot into three branches as thick as your wrist, ranging 18 total feet in length, nursed by the fertile rot and drip drip drip of your unconcern, left on its own to go on and on and never die and never leave. Your mother, that is. Her life is yours.

Photo by Alex Wing on Unsplash

 

advice for those who stay

November 12th, 2019    -    5 Comments

Please don’t look for anything or feel the need to fabricate a feeling. A long illness takes us through every stage of denial, anger and loss well before death occurs. The fact that feelings come and go, that all things come and go, means that we are intimately acquainted with death already, in every moment. There is nothing more to be made of it.

When my mother died, I felt so small in the face of a power, an event, that had no meaning, and over which I had no control. We ourselves give false meaning and false control to everything that comes before. So this could be the most real thing you’ve ever seen. We have nothing to do with it, and nothing to add. I wouldn’t call that being useless. I would call it being.

You will sense the liberation when it comes, the cessation of struggle and suffering. There is no way to receive that as anything but a blessing. In my case, as in yours, it is a blessing for all. Unscripted, as it is.

I wasn’t present for my mother’s death, but when her last call came, I told her I loved her. That’s it, from beginning to end.

When my father died, it was the end of a life lived in pain and anger. He died on his terms, and it happened fast. I told him something that was inconceivable at any other point in my life or his. I told him that I was proud of him, and I meant it.

Now you will meet and console others in their fatigue and grief. You will do what needs doing. It is all quite matter-of-fact. Let it be. Let it be. Let it be.

Hold these things in your heart and let yourself be led into the quiet stillness of the hour. Stay there.

Photo by Douglas Bagg on Unsplash

 

making a wish

September 26th, 2019    -    20 Comments

Today is bulky trash day at our house, the day that a special garbage truck comes to take items too big for your bins. Bulky trash day comes around once every twenty years or so when you clean out part of your garage. Cleaning a garage is the painful process of recalling the usefulness you once expected to get from otherwise useless stuff. The items we stacked on the curb for pickup by the sanitation service looked like a pile of thingamabobs from broken-down whatchamacallits, their original function long ago lost to age and decay. Even before the trash truck could come some of the stuff was scavenged, which is a hopeful thing. Who knows? Our bulky trash might have years of obsolesence yet to give, idling in the forgotten corner of someone else’s garage.

It’s been a month of clearing out. Last week I called the veterans’ group to pick up more sacks of clothes; after that I swept through bathroom drawers and shelves, where some of the medicines were—get this—pediatric. A close inspection of your medicine cabinet can tell you what you don’t want to know about yourself. Like why in the world are you keeping this 10-year-old earwax softener and two packages of wart-removers, not to mention the eight boxes of Band-Aids accumulated during the age of boo-boos?

At a certain time of year, as with a certain season of life, thoughts naturally turn to what you no longer need and what you no longer have.

Lately I’ve been nursing the visible and invisible wounds of a minor fall. Not an old-lady fall, but an old-lady fall from a bicycle on the boardwalk at the beach. You might not even know you are an old lady until you fall from a bicycle at the beach. The scrapes on my left knee and elbow were deep and bloody; I cried. But later on I realized I’d torn up the insides of my shoulder too. I’m due for physical therapy, which right now sounds to me like “assisted living.” This is no big deal, but still, I’m shocked at the loss of what I never appreciated: an arm and a leg.

The climb is long, they say, but in the end, it’s bulky trash day.

I’ve been thinking about how old my mom was when she died, only 67, and about how young she was when I was born, 63 years ago today, and that calls for a wish.

May all beings be peaceful.
May all beings be happy.
May all beings be well.
May all beings be safe.
May all beings be free from suffering.

Photo by Ritu Arya on Unsplash

it always comes out of nowhere

June 29th, 2018    -    13 Comments

We have more money and more brains and better houses and apartments and nicer boats. We are smarter than they are. We are the elite. — Trump in Fargo ND, June 27, 2018

In the light of an early morning last week, I was on a 58-foot boat motoring the 22 miles to Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California. The sky was gray, the clouds were low and the water, smooth. We hadn’t seen much—a handful of seals, a scattering of water birds, and nothing at all on the horizon—when the island suddenly penetrated the mist.

“It always comes out of nowhere,” the captain said.

I’d never been to Catalina, although I’d long heard that there wasn’t much there. As soon as the clouds lifted we set off walking. To my mind, the only way to get to know a place is on foot. A mile-and-a-half stroll across the tiny harbor town takes you a century back in time to the island’s brief heyday, when a chewing-gum magnate bought the whole of it and vowed it would never leave his hands. Mr. Wrigley aimed to turn his investment into “the people’s island,” a tourist mecca to be known all over the world.

It didn’t take me long to reconstruct what happened instead. The Wrigleys built their mountaintop home here 1921, their son’s mansion in 1927, the country club in 1928 and the Casino boasting “the world’s largest circular ballroom,” in May 1929. Yes, that 1929. In the long and great aftermath, who would dare to boast? The island was closed to visitors during WWII. Big bands died, and with it, ballroom dancing. Commercial air travel would soon make far more exotic locales accessible to tourists. Dreams disappeared like mist.

Decades later the island remains what it has always been, a lovely little spot to see the endless wash of wind and waves, which leave their mark without a word.

Can anything be imagined so ridiculous, that this miserable and wretched creature [man], who is not so much as master of himself, but subject to the injuries of all things, should call himself master and emperor of the world, of which he has not power to know the least part, much less to command the whole? — Michel de Montaigne

This sad week has felt, politically speaking, as if nothing will ever change, that the deck is stacked, the course is set and the outcome is irreversible. The vain and vile talk of “more money, more brains, and nicer boats” recalled, for me, the nicest boat of all, the world’s largest ocean liner, built by the richest men with the biggest blindest egos and ambitions, a vessel that nonetheless took only 2 hours and 40 minutes to submerge completely under the North Atlantic and a scant 5 minutes more to reach the ocean floor. All because something always comes out of nowhere, and things really do change overnight.

Photo by Matthew Johnson

how to be useful

January 28th, 2018    -    13 Comments

I’ve been thinking about writing a post for a long time, which is a good way to not write a post. Last week I felt sick and overwhelmed, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on either the “sick” or the “overwhelmed.” People really are terribly sick all over but I’m not. The heater has been broken for five days and won’t be fixed for another three, but you can’t get much overwhelm out of that when you’re wintering in California with a high of 80 and a low of 50. No, it was more that I had accumulated unreturned messages and unanswered letters and I knew too many people who were praying for real help, miracles and such, tumbling into sorrow and fear, and doubted that any of my pearly words could repair the broken. I didn’t think there was much I could do.

My teacher has always made a point of emphasizing why, whether we know it or not, we come to a spiritual practice, which is the very same reason Shakyamuni Buddha began his spiritual practice which is the very same thing that not a single one of us can do anything about. Namely, that we get old, get sick and die. Come face-to-face with that and it might tie up your tongue for at least a week or two.

I have been wondering lately what I’m supposed to do with my little old self, and I’ve lit upon an answer. I want to be useful, just a tiny bit useful, and you might argue that I’m already handy in that way so what I mean is that I want to be a tiny bit more useful. Useful is always good, you see. It’s not fancy, but it gets right to work for better and not worse.

And about the time you hit on the word, useful, up comes a chance to do something useful, and not because you’re feeling right-minded or decent, either, but just because you look up and see what you need to do.

In early December I heard that an old friend of mine had died without warning and all alone. He had been a priest with me until he left the temple and made his life as best he could on his own. He was without close kin but had an ex-wife who was big-hearted and she called me after it happened just to talk about all the things that had been left to her to iron out. I told her I would help, and I didn’t do much, but she felt she had some company in taking care of what comes after. Everything got sorted out and we did as much as we could to dignify his life and distribute the leftovers. She kept insisting that she wanted to pay me for my trouble, my mileage or my time and I refused because I hadn’t done a damn thing. But last week a card came from her with a crisp bill taped inside that had one of your more electrifying presidents printed on it. I shook my head and maybe muttered a curse or two but I said thank you because I could, in fact, use up a $100 bill in a single trip to the grocery store. I put it in my wallet.

The next day I was coming up to the corner of Lake Avenue and the 210 overpass when I saw my regular buddy working his spot where we cross paths two or so times per week. The light was red and as I stopped beside him I reached in my wallet for a dollar. I rolled down the window and we exchanged our familiar hellos and when I asked how he was doing he cocked his head and said “Well . . . ” Seems he’d just been given a $250 ticket for walking into the second lane of traffic when someone had waved three dollars at him and he hadn’t seen the patrol car until it was too late and he was cited for being a pedestrian outside of a marked crosswalk. The ticket was going to make him late on his rent. He was old and often sick, but he and a partner had worked themselves to the precarious point that they had a place to sleep with a roof over it, and every single day was a test of whether or not they could keep it. And then I remembered what I’d been given, and how I could share the merit of a friend’s life, pass on the generosity of another, and be a tiny bit more useful in this crooked world.

I handed him the crisp $100. He looked at me in disbelief and concern, which you can actually see when someone is thinking of you and not themselves.

“Are you sure you don’t need it?”

And then I was really sure.

###

You might find it useful to read what a friend of mine wrote after his son died from the flu: “What I learned when my son died.”

you are born

January 4th, 2018    -    24 Comments

eggshellFor everyone.

You are born.

Let’s consider the facts before we get carried away.

You are born and no one—neither doctor, scientist, high priest nor philosopher—knows where you came from. The whole world, and your mother within it, was remade by the mystery of your conception. Her body, mind and heart were multiplied by a magical algorithm whereby two become one and one becomes two.

You inhale and open your eyes. Now you are awake.

By your being, you have attained the unsurpassable. You have extinguished the fear and pain of the past, transcended time, turned darkness to light, embodied infinite karma, and carried forth the seed of consciousness that creates an entire universe. All in a single moment.

Now that you are here, you manifest the absolute truth of existence. You are empty and impermanent, changing continuously, turning by tiny degrees the wheel of an endless cycle. Just a month from now, your family will marvel at the growing heft of your body. They will delight in the dawn of your awareness. You will grab a finger and hold tight, turn your head, pucker your lips and eat like there’s no tomorrow. You will smile. Six months from now, the newborn will be gone. Within a year, you will be walking the earth as your dominion. And although your caregivers might think that they taught you to eat, walk and talk, these attributes emerged intuitively from your deep intelligence.

You are born completely endowed with the marvelous function of the awakened mind. You are a miracle. You are a genius. You eat when hungry and sleep when tired.

You are a Buddha. But in the same way you will forget the circumstances of your birth, you will forget the truth of your being. And by forgetting what you are, you will suffer in the painful, fruitless search to become something else, striving against your own perfection to feel whole and secure. By your attachment to desires, you will squander the chance of infinite lifetimes: the chance to be born in human form. Luckily, the chance to be reborn—to wake up—arises every moment. Your body is the body of inexhaustible wisdom. When will you realize it? read more

letter from my 16-year-old self

November 1st, 2017    -    30 Comments

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Yesterday I reached into the bottom of a drawer and rediscovered my English Composition notebook from my junior year in high school. I knew that I had kept it, and flipping through the pages of my tightly curled script, spaced so sincerely between faded blue rules,  I remembered why.

We often think that if we had the chance we would go back in time to illuminate our younger selves with mature insights, to foreshorten expectations and prevent cruel disappointments. Drop the notion that you’re wiser now than you were then. What did your 16-year-old self know that you’ve forgotten? Before your last hour, can you remember again?

My Last Wish
English III
October 23, 1972

My life is a collection of small occurrences. In looking back over sixteen years, I remember incidents which, when they happened, seemed quite forgettable. A handshake with a friendly dog, a gift of bubble gum from my father, and a playground chase are a few of the scenes that come to mind.

When confronted with the possibility of only one more day of life, I immediately respond with a desire to experience all of the thrills our earth has to offer. But, after considering further, I reject that idea as a way to conclude my life.

What experiences, after all, has my memory chosen to include in its vast enclosures? The everyday happenings remain most clearly in my mind’s eye. They have influenced and molded me into the complex person that I am.

If I had one day left to live, I wouldn’t want to circle the world or sail the seas. I might wash my hair, play cards, clear the dinner table, fight with my sister, say my prayers and go to sleep.

We must become the ones we always were. How else to explain the sublime recognition when we meet ourselves again.

 

nine eleven seventeen

September 11th, 2017    -    11 Comments

In this hush
between the rising and dusk
of one minute and month
a season arriving
a circle recycling
we see sharp and know cold
that not one thing stands
or stands still
Not one thing untouched
but all carried intact
by love
deep, far and beyond.

beside still waters

March 15th, 2017    -    15 Comments

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He leadeth me beside the still waters:
he maketh me to lie down in green pastures.
He leadeth me in the path of righteousness for his namesake:
he restoreth my soul.

This is not quite how it goes. I know it is not quite how it goes. I don’t remember how it goes, but I mumble it anyway. It is the least and the most that I can do.

Standing by the bed in the ICU, the respirator inflating my father’s chest like a pipe organ, I leave aside the Buddhist incantations that I’ve memorized and whisper remnants of the old soul song. I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

This is a passage from Hand Wash Cold that I’ve been thinking about lately and a lot. Soon after my father died 10 years ago, I told my sisters that I would take his dog to live with me. That’s how the old girl ended up here, in a picture I took this morning.

On the far side of 15, she’s not quite on her last leg but clearly on her last three legs, as arthritis hobbles and sometimes topples her. I’ve pulled her from the pond twice. And yet she still wants to wander in and out, not hearing, perhaps not seeing, and not managing much of what she used to do so dependably. So I’m at her side most days, all day, watching for the wordless word she will give me, when we both know beyond knowing what time it is.

I’ve had a number of visitors to the garden lately, and the subject of nearly all these encounters has been life and death. Not surprising since it’s the only subject there is. Some people have seen the warning light of a crossroads ahead. Others are investigating how to be with the sick and dying. I always tell them not to make too much of the dying part, since it happens by itself and without us ever knowing quite how or when, but rather to work on the being part, since only when we know how to be can we be not afraid. Oh, to be not afraid. That is quite simply everything you can do for everyone.

I rattled around Amazon last week and picked up George Saunders’s new and brilliant novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. It is wonderful in the most daring and difficult way, and I recommend it.

The author has imagined life in the graveyard, populated by grotesquely self-obsessed specters who linger longingly and in great distress because they do not know that they are dead. And when they realize it, they are buoyantly free to leave all suffering behind.

I can imagine life in a garden, populated by self-obsessed specters who linger longingly and in great distress because they do not know that they are alive. And when they realize it, they are buoyantly free to show goodness and mercy forever.

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the rules are broken

December 12th, 2016    -    6 Comments

Last night I saw my neighbor at the gas station in town. We didn’t recognize one another at first even though we’ve lived next door for 17 years. A sad sign of the times. We immediately fell into each other’s arms, saying what needn’t be said, that every day it gets unbelievably, horrifyingly worse and that our country is dead. I told her it feels like the flags should be flying at half-mast. She said she feels sorry for our teenage daughters, a year apart. There was a contract we thought we had, a contract with the future that depended on our effort, intelligence, honesty and decency. Did you ever feel that? It was fragile, to be sure, but it’s what we grew up believing.

The rules are broken, I said.

A night or two after the election my daughter came into my room as I was sitting. “Mom, if you let me get a tattoo . . . ” she launched into a proposition that she knew was absurd, “would you get one with me?” She explained that since she was under 18, she could only get a tattoo with a parent’s consent.

Every institution in our country is collapsing and what comes up in the middle of the fall is the tiny matter of a tattoo.

I did not straight away say no, because of the realization that has taken hold in me: the rules are broken. We’re going to have to depend on something else, you see, than what we thought was allowed. How we thought things worked.

I said yes.

I told her about a certain phrase in of one of my books that has inspired quite a few people, words that I wrote with only her in mind. I suggested that if we got identical tattoos based on that message, even though people all over the world have shared it on the internet, we would be the only two people in the world who shared it in real life and knew what it really meant.

And that dialogue has since caused piercing pain for me, but total amusement and pride for her, and considering the way the world is going, it has made us both very happy to have each other, two blossoms blooming on a branch that will never break.

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