We did an all-day retreat on Saturday. I finished my talk, came back to my seat, and saw something small and white on the floor. Assuming it was a tiny piece of paper, I picked it up to put on the window ledge, but it felt like silk. As I stroked it absentmindedly I felt some of it dissolve and fall on my black pants. I looked down and realized it was a dead moth, and what I had stroked off were parts of its white wings.
The meditation bell rang that moment, I put the moth down, and felt a surge of sadness about its death. In our house I usually manage to locate moths and take them outdoors, but this one had gotten stuck in the zendo. Life felt fragile and diaphanous.
It was a warm fall day and sunlight beamed through the window on my left, creating a puddle of light on the carpet. Reflected in the light were branches of the maple tree outside and dark, squiggly shapes made by the madly rustling leaves. Occasionally, one or two fell in a swoosh against the window because of the strong wind.
The silky wings of the moth remained stuck on my fingertips. When Bernie died he left sheets soiled and in disarray; the first thing the ambulance crew did upon entering the bedroom was open windows. What kind of deaths are these? Is one a good death and one bad? There’s a koan in our Book of Householder Koans entitled Kanji’s A Good Death. Like many good koans, it points not just to an insight but also to a practice.
You can pre-order The Book of Householder Koans here.
A friend sent me a link to this superb interview with the African writer, Alexandra Fuller, who talked of losing first her father and then her son. It’s one of the most moving testimonies I’ve heard, and I urge you to listen to it. In the interview Fuller said that we’re born to grieve. And why not? In the same way that we’re born to grow and develop, we’re also born to weaken and fade.
The first half of the trajectory of our life is all about getting bigger, taller, gaining weight, obtaining skills and resources, getting a job, a partner, a family. The arc is all about increase and accumulation.
This is the part of the trajectory that our culture loves. It worships hard work and success, it worships rewards like large and fancy cars, eternal sunlight destinations, and lines of sportswear for the eternally young.
But the trajectory at some point starts its downward curve, all part of the natural lifespan, and that’s the part our culture pretends is not there. And we pretend, too. We’ve grown so accustomed to the prospect that things will keep on getting bigger, it’s hard to make the turn.
”Hey man,” a friend recently said on his 60th birthday, “I’m only getting started.” Well, since every moment is a starting point, you can say that you’re getting started every single morning, including the morning of the day you’ll die.
I couldn’t miss it about me after Bernie’s death. Last spring I finally went to the doctor to talk about the pains in the left side of my body, especially shoulder and hip, and she said it must have been going on for a while only I didn’t notice before. My energy is certainly not the same. I used to fly a lot, arrive in a different country and start teaching that very day or evening, or else return and go right to work without a rest. I can’t do that anymore.
Instead, I look at ads about beautiful retirement communities with spacious condos (who cleans those big rooms?) and a blue bay with sailing, swimming, and kayaking, the retired couple tanned and healthy, with white teeth I didn’t have as a child. You’d never know from those photos that their bodies show the effects of wear and tear and that their minds aren’t as clear or quick as before. That beautiful older couple can’t jump out of bed with joy in the mornings; if they’re like most others, they get up slowly and may be especially careful with those first steps. They may suffer from low blood pressure first thing and be unstable on their feet, like Bernie, who would sit up till he felt he was strong enough to take his first steps. But the ads don’t say anything about that.
Small reminders abound every day, preparing us for bigger losses. We have to practice a little ahead of time. I think that’s why I love the fall so much.