Posts Tagged ‘Impermanence’

where the fun stops

July 11th, 2018    -    7 Comments

Two years ago we took a summer vacation to Hawaii. Nowadays weather is unpredictable all over, and here it was unseasonably wet. Roads flooded and bridges washed out. One day the clouds lifted. Housebound and bored, we signed up for a kayaking tour that would have us paddling up a river and hiking to a waterfall.

The guide told us that because of the rain, this was the first day in a week that any boats had gone out. When we launched, the river was wide and placid. About two miles in, we pulled out to start the hike. They gave us sandwiches and cold drinks for a picnic in the shade. Then they told us that to start on the trail, we had to cross a ford over slippery rocks in high water with a churning current by holding onto a rope. We’d have to do the same on the way out. There was no way around it.

For some of us, this is where the fun stopped.

I spent last weekend sitting with a group of people in Cincinnati. Anyone who has ever been on a meditation retreat knows that the principal reason you come to sit, whether you realize it or not, is because life is difficult. Sure, meditation helps you focus and calm down. But no one with a half-opened eye comes to Zen just to chill out, be a better person, or get more out of life. This was never clearer to me than when folks began to tell me their troubles. Inside this silent room, amid a rainbow of stained glass, illuminated with the dappled daylight of the glistening garden beyond, disease was spreading, surgeries were pending, marriages were ending, parents and partners had perished, children were stumbling, money was scarce, worry was rampant, and fear flooded our hearts. The sky was falling and the earth was burning. Up ahead, the current was swirling.

Knowing what we know—the swiftness of change—and what we don’t—the miles of uncertainty ahead—how do we live?

There’s a rope over the river and we cross it together.

The rope is love. Take it.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
Sunday, July 15, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Los Angeles
Register by email

Beautiful Valley: A Zen Retreat in Upstate New York
Oct. 11-14
Chapin Mill Retreat Center, Batavia NY
Register here

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

I just want to encourage you

May 1st, 2018    -    11 Comments

My first Zen teacher was Japanese, and although he spoke English, he was nearly impossible to follow. In his soft voice and heavy accent, a good part of what he said was indecipherable. Because of that, he had a reputation for giving terrible Dharma talks, or teachings, and this caused him regret.

“I just want to encourage you,” he would say as he set off on a discourse that no one could make heads or tails of. But that was enough, at least for me. I’ve realized that encouragement is the essence of teaching. I think it’s just about all we can do for one another, and all we need to do. With encouragement, you see, people can do anything and will. A little encouragement goes a long way. You might even say it lasts forever.

Nowadays I’m grateful for the encouragement I’ve been given, which seems to be the most useful thing I can pass along.

A few years ago there was some new research into how toddlers learn to walk. The study said that a baby learning to walk falls on average 17 times per hour. 17 times! Can you imagine that? Seventeen times the shock, hurt, and tears. More than 200 failures in one 12-hour stretch! And 200 times to start over at square one. Even with all that, there has not yet been a baby who gave up on the whole enterprise. It’s a remarkably efficient learning process. Forward motion dissolves fear.

This information has factored into a lot of the advice I’ve given to people since then. Most of us, most of the time, encumber ourselves with the terrible weight and responsibility for teaching our kids everything so they turn out to be something. By that I mean something successful or prized, happy or well. Starting out, we look at them as shapeless clay, putty, or goop. I like to remind parents that we don’t actually teach our children how to walk, how to eat, how to talk, or how to sleep, regardless of how many expert opinions we seek on those subjects. An acorn becomes an oak, I say, lacking any other explanation for how human development happens. And on this basis, our children are completely and wholly themselves at every age and stage, lacking nothing, only absorbing time and encouragement to keep going.

Back when my daughter was in preschool, her teacher made a handout for parents called 4 Steps of Encouragement. When your kids are about 4 years old, you might start to worry about the really important stuff they aren’t doing, like riding a tricycle, holding a pencil, writing their name, or drawing a person with arms and legs. You’re pretty sure they’re already behind, and then where will they end up?  The teacher assures you it’s not late, there’s no hurry, children learn and grow at their own pace, and for heaven’s sake please confine your contribution to repeating these four things:

1. “I understand, I know it’s hard.”
2. “I think you can handle it.”
3. “Want to give it a try?”
4. “When you’re ready . . . “

Last week my daughter texted me during a school day, one of the last of her senior year, and said “I’m getting sad to leave.” I was surprised to hear her express affection for high school, but that wasn’t it. She meant sad to leave home, which really means sad to grow up. Isn’t that true? Isn’t reluctance at the root of all sadness? The reluctance to change, let go, fall down, get up and move on?

Of course we can give help where it is needed, attention when it is lacking, and patience when time is short. But there’s one more thing that bears repeating.

I just want to encourage you.

how to raise an adult

April 4th, 2018    -    4 Comments

Today I walked to Rite Aid, something I’ve done a few times — okay, exactly twice. On the sidewalk ahead, I could see a bowlegged man shuffling toward me. When he got up close he pointed to the intersection behind me with his cane.

Is that Huntington? he asked.

No, that’s Sierra Madre Boulevard.

OK, he said, I just have to cross that street.

Huntington and Sierra Madre boulevards are three miles apart and not in any way like the other. So I wondered for the rest of the afternoon whether he was: 1) following a peculiar exercise regimen, or 2) genuinely disoriented and lost. I didn’t look back to see if he made it across the street, nor did I see him on the return walk home, but he stayed with me, that old traveler did.

When I encounter a stranger who tells me something unexpected — the lady in the Whole Foods parking lot who said she loved the shape of my head; Sister Imelda, a nun in full habit on the hiking trail telling me she was collecting souls — I figure they have a message for me. The message is to wake up. After 10,000 or so steps, I realized the man had given me an answer I’d been looking for.

I’ve been wanting to write a post about how to raise an adult, an activity that’s occupying me these last hundred days before my daughter leaves home. But I couldn’t, because I don’t know how to raise an adult. I was thinking I’d come up with a handy list of steps, like, say, the steps for growing corn. But it turns out growing corn isn’t that simple to sum up either. There’s the matter of soil, weather, temperature and pests: so many variables, too many unknowns.

When you’re a parent, every question you have is how, and every answer is do. All those ages and stages, milestones and thresholds, tests and percentages, transitions and regressions, variables and unknowns. But that’s in your head. In real life, to get where you’re going you just have to cross the street.

Forward motion: it happens.

Last week, a vote-by-mail ballot for the city election came addressed to my daughter. I sat beside her as she read the instructions, asked thoughtful questions and filled in the bubbles. Then she signed her name with a signature I’d never seen and wouldn’t have recognized. An adult.

Guess that’s how.

***

Coming up next:
What is Zen: A Retreat in Kansas City, April 13-15
Still Summer: A Zen Retreat in Ohio, Cincinnati July 5-8

 

already you

February 26th, 2018    -    7 Comments

You have always been you. It sounds a little bit silly to say that, because it doesn’t come close to expressing what I mean. As the person who has spent nearly every one of last 7,000 days and nights in silent wonder and raging worry over every aspect of your life—your eating, sleeping, feeling, and thinking; your hair, bones, blood and skin—I mean it as an admission. It wasn’t me. It isn’t me. It will not be me that makes you who you are.

I have a memory of the first time you waved bye-bye. A sitter was holding you in her arms near the front door and I was walking out of it. When your baby waves bye-bye to you it’s a moment that really sticks. But it’s not quite right to say you were a baby then. You were already you when you did that, already a perfectly functioning human being. You were on a path that was uniquely yours, that had begun in a time and place before me, and that would progress in a completely intact and natural way after me.

Why did I think I had so much to do with it?

Every now and then my Zen teacher will say something (that he has said many times before) to point to the truth of life. It goes sort of like this: “Once you were a little child, then a teenager and now an adult. You were 10 then 18, 30 or 50. Was any of that hard to do?” No, we chuckle to ourselves, since it’s a given. It happens by itself.

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They don’t toil, neither do they spin.

A lily does not become a stalk of corn either. It never becomes anything but itself, by itself. This is another revelation that sounds stupidly obvious and unremarkable. But we should reflect on it. We should study it: the obvious and effortless perfection of the way things are and how they come to be.

I grew up in another time, a time before the dawn of the Industrial Parental Anxiety Complex. This is to say that my mother did the mothering, such as it was, and my father did the fathering, for better or worse, but nothing that they did or didn’t do was formed by this new attitude of expertise called parenting. Parenting is not something that anyone knows how to do or will know how to do. It cannot be taught, except by children, who have the sometimes charming and often infuriating ability to be no one but themselves.

My mother never once hid broccoli in the mac and cheese. She never hounded me to practice the piano as a way to elevate my math scores or letter in lacrosse to polish my college prospects. These kind of manufactured agonies were simply beyond the few extra hours available in her day. She had other concerns, great matters, and her children did not appear to be chief among them. Oh happy day!

Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes and the grass grows by itself.

This is not to say that we don’t have our hands full, as parents. Not to say that there isn’t much to learn or do, but it concerns our children far less than we think. Our job is to raise ourselves upright as half-decent people and self-managing adults. To be honest and reliable. To be patient. To have confidence in ourselves and trust in nearly everyone else. To keep going through the rough patches, with a resilient hope and idiotic optimism that all will be well. To shine light equally on the lilies and the thistles, the flowers and the thorns, the rocks and the mud and the grass that grows every which way in the field without applying a fence or force. To simply be, faithful and true, because that is how our children grow strong in themselves as themselves, lacking nothing, functioning perfectly, the amazing humans they already are.

starting to change

January 5th, 2018    -    46 Comments

This morning I went into the backyard and took this photo of the Japanese maple, which is just now starting to change color. You might look at it and think, isn’t that lovely, and it is, but the color change used to take place in early November. The old calendar is obsolete.

This is my daughter’s final semester of high school. In the fall, she will be moving to New York to start college. I don’t know any more than that. I don’t know what will happen then or after. It’s not my life. I might have pretended I wasn’t obsessed with the future for these last 18 years or so, but that was a lie. Before our children leave home we have a pretty clear idea of what we expect to happen the next day, week, month and year. We’re all in. But now the future has finally escaped my grasp, leaving my hands ready for—ready for what?

A new year always brings with it the drive for change and renewal, but this one seems pointed straight at my keister. Everywhere I turn I see the message: What will you do with your days? What will you try now? What is it time for? How far will you go?

My friend Mary Trunk has a new documentary project, Muscle Memory. A former dancer and choreographer, she reunited with her college dance buddies after 30 years and filmed them learning new dance steps while they talked about how they’d changed since their glory days. Were they still willing to take risks, create, and discover new things about themselves? I find the answers mesmerizing.

Muscle Memory #1 from Mary Trunk on Vimeo.

A few months ago my daughter asked me the very question lurking around these margins. “What will you do after I leave?” She beamed her electric smile at me, buzzing with her approaching freedom. I shrugged. “You could write a book about raising a teenage daughter!,” she said. She was trying to help, and she meant it. She was giving me her permission. It was a kick, a jump, a start. Let’s see how far I’m willing to take it.

***

Maia Duerr has written a handy new book right up this alley, Work That Matters, a wise and realistic step-by-step guide to finding a livelihood that you love. If the questions on my mind are the questions on your mind, this book can start you off in the right direction. Leave a comment on this post for a chance to win a brand-new copy and a brand-new you.

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.

eclipsed

August 15th, 2017    -    9 Comments

Stop dwelling on passing days, months and years. Look with delight in the undergrowth where chrysanthemums bloom.— Dogen Zenji

When my parents were still quite young, they used to join friends every now and then for an event called a “grunion run.” The grunion is a slender, five-inch-long fish found in the waters off Southern and Baja California with a rather adventurous spawning behavior. In the middle of the night at high tide during the full and new moons of spring and summer, thousands of grunion might swim far up onto the beach and flop themselves into the wave-washed sand. Eggs are laid and fertilized. You can fish for them while all this is underway, but only with your bare hands.

I remember this as something that a family with three children under age 7 could do for a thrill when they had no money and a six-pack of beer. Any haul of fish, I suspect, was secondary to the exhilaration of running amok in the wet sand at high tide in the dead of night.

At the time, and for long after, my parents’ lives were burdened by worry, despair and disappointment. It’s not surprising that it seemed reasonable to bundle up on a windy cold beach with your babies at midnight and wait for the split-second when something truly remarkable could happen.

Last week a package arrived at the door. Inside were special glasses for viewing a solar eclipse. My husband, the NASA engineer, is gearing up for the event of a lifetime. He’s flying to a place that’s located within the so-called path of totality, the 65-mile-wide swath from Oregon to South Carolina where the full eclipse can be viewed, clouds permitting. He offered that my daughter and I could come too, but I reminded him that she would have started school by then, her last year here at home. He shrugged and said that it would only be visible for 2 minutes anyway.

Each moment is nothing but the moment of appearing and disappearing. — Maezumi Roshi

Even as brief as 2 minutes, the sight “brings people to tears,” said a spokesperson for the American Astronomical Society. “It makes people’s jaws drop.” The lure of instant transcendence must be irresistible. A friend in Oregon told me that the hotels are all booked up and the little towns are bracing for huge crowds and massive traffic jams.

These days on Earth are exceedingly dark and worrisome. We have every reason to despair for ourselves, our children and our future. So we look for solace and meaning, inspiration and awe. But what we’re really hankering for is not what happens just once in a lifetime. And it’s not going to be found up in the sky. Besides, despite what people think, a total eclipse of the sun is not even that rare. Every 18 months (on average) a total solar eclipse is visible from some place on the Earth’s surface. Wherever you are standing, it might return in as long as 375 years, or as short as a year-and-a-half. Will you see it? For that matter, will you ever see your life unfolding in its precious rarity right where you stand? That’s the real question.

This is the fact of your life! This is the business of this life!—Maezumi Roshi

The last time I was so acutely aware of an eclipse was on August 11, 1999. That morning I had been admitted to the hospital to have labor induced because I had complications and the baby was at risk. The thing is, nothing happened. The contractions never started. At the end of the day, after I’d been told that we’d start all over in the morning, I watched the news. That’s how I learned that there had been a total eclipse of the sun that day, visible mainly over Europe. To me, that explained the delay. Life seems to stand still in anticipation of a solar eclipse, and then it disappears.

You may suppose that time is only passing away and not understand that time never arrives. — Dogen Zenji

I live in my own path of totality, you see, a path I try not to veer away from. Completely engaged in the precious and fleeting rarity of my own immediate reality. Eclipsed by nothing and nowhere else. Alert and alive to the place where the rarest flower blooms. Embracing the moment that will never return: now.

This is the only place we have the power to go good and do good for others.

And that, my friends, is what brings me to tears.

no shoes

May 19th, 2017    -    1 Comment

I met plenty of powerful people in interesting situations before I began my practice.

I met the heads of some of the world’s largest companies.

I met the founder of Enron before his titanic collapse.

I stayed too long having cocktails with the Governor of Texas and missed my flight home.

I saw a President of the United States having a club sandwich on a sun deck outside a hotel.

I met Frank Sinatra when he was still doing it his way.

I met a Super Bowl quarterback, a Hall of Fame pitcher, and the general manager of the New York Yankees.

I met three Heisman Trophy winners, including one who would be acquitted of the crime of the century.

I met a half-dozen television anchors, two big-city mayors, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer.

None of this was because of me, but because when you are a young woman in business, certain doors open to you.

What I remember about all of these fellows is that they were well-dressed. (Except for the writer.) And by that I mean they wore fine shoes: expensive and polished to a mirror shine. Because when it comes right down to it, shoes really do make the man.

And then I met the most powerful human being I’ve ever encountered, in the most uninteresting situation imaginable, and he wore no shoes.

He wore no shoes.

***

Everyone you ever meet is holding up a mirror to you. If you like what you see, it’s because it validates or elevates your self-image. If you don’t like it, it’s because you’ve seen some aspect of yourself that you’d rather hide or run away from.

A teacher is a mirror. A good teacher is a mirror without any distortion, which is to say, no judgment. From time to time, my teacher will say something that completely offends my ego. He will say, “I don’t care what you think about yourself.” This is actually the deepest and most compassionate form of caring. It means that what I think about myself is never true. This can be a shock, but it can also be a profound relief, like kicking off the shoes that are killing you.

Seeing yourself clearly seems like it would be the simplest thing in the world. Just look! But to see what’s here we have to slowly, painstakingly wipe away all the ideas, images and narratives sticking to us. We have to drop the costume that got us inside the door in the first place. This can be painful, but there is fresh-faced innocence on the other side of the mask.

The world’s largest companies don’t stay that way forever. Eventually they collapse, merge, shrink, or disappear in the churn of commerce.

The founder of Enron died in disgrace and exile. Some think it was suicide.

The governor lost re-election because he signed a law making high schoolers pass classes before playing sports.

The president lost too, for raising taxes when they needed to be raised.

Sinatra got old, got sick and died. What people remember are his early years.

The famous athletes, except for the murderer, retired to the oblivion of a record book.

Paper is dust; TV is yesterday; stars go dark.

But the Dharma never dies.

Never dies.

***

You might want to think about coming to a retreat.

all I got done

April 6th, 2017    -    17 Comments

On the street outside the gate, a woman walks a dog. I’ve glimpsed them nearly every day for what must be years. Her dog is old and the woman goes slow, the two now inseparable on the steepest part of the hill.

“It’s a beautiful day,” I say.
“It sure is.”

This is a passage from Paradise in Plain Sight, and as it is with many things I scribble, I don’t arrive at the full impact of my words until long after.

I am writing from a sick bed. I had a colonoscopy last week, a routine one they give you at age 60, and as with the one ten years ago, the trauma of the procedure and the sedative wiped out my immunity, and I quickly picked up the flu that I pray doesn’t progress into pneumonia.

It’s painfully obvious that at my age, I am approaching the steepest part of the path. The time that some of us realize that we have already done it all, with that determination and acceleration that young people produce, barreling through decades of accomplishment and acquisition. But now, in order to keep going, we have to let go. Let go of stuff, which is actually the easy part. Let go of our health, perhaps. Let go of our certainty about things and the reliability of physical strength. Let go of our beliefs about who we are and what we want and need. We really have no choice in the matter.

This is what I am experiencing. My resistance makes it worse. There is no going back. I truly have to see how things go. It doesn’t matter if I like how it goes. Letting go of what isn’t needed is such a relief.

This may be all I “get done” today.

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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