Yesterday marked two months since my mother died; today would have been her 94th birthday. I don’t feel that I’m in big mourning for her, but today my body feels heavy and tired, pulled down to earth. Soon I’ll leave for a funeral service for the brother of someone I love very much, Roshi Michel Engu Dobbs. It’s a bit of driving, but I’ll be joined by another dear friend, the photographer Peter Cunningham. We’ll meet somewhere in Holyoke and proceed in one car from there.
My father had a clear mind till he died, but he often would look back on his life with a puzzled expression on his face, as if saying: What was that? I think he spent substantial time with memories going back to childhood days, growing up in a small village on the northern border of Rumania in the years before World War II: his friends, his strict Rabbi father who wouldn’t let him play soccer, his brother, the mother who preferred his brother, his school days, etc.
He had 90 rich years of life: two wives, three children, three different countries where he lived, and work that he loved. When he died many people crowded into his home to tell his family how much he meant to them.
But with all this, whenever he thought of the past—which he confessed to doing often—a look of puzzlement would cross his face, almost as though he was contemplating his face in a mirror and couldn’t recognize it as his own. What was that? It’s as if he wanted to find a final coherent meaning to it all, and failed.
I don’t often go to that distant land called my past. At times I reflect on certain events and relationships, I think about what I learned and what it took for me to finally learn what I learned. I had to learn how to learn.
At the same time, the present is what counts for me, always the same question: What is the call? What is it now?
I find myself wondering if there’s still a big move ahead. Of course, I won’t live in this house forever. One day I’ll go back to emptying it out, converting it back into the shell Bernie and I found when we first moved in here, make it an empty space that others can inhabit and populate with furniture and things that will make the house their own, including memories. People here talk often about finally moving to a condo, with less housekeeping work (of which there’s plenty here, including some new windows to be installed next week), but that’s not the move I’m talking about.
What I have in mind addresses not just lifestyle but also a bigger quest. It’s the way I’ve moved many times in the past: work beckoned, practice beckoned, love beckoned. Those are the things I continue to listen for, not the beckoning of senior housing, though I surely appreciate the need for it. Given everything, the needs of my body may still ambush me into making that kind of move, but here I am, at the age of 72, still listening for a different kind of invitation, a different idea, a new possibility.
I know well the temptation to settle into a comfortable chair, read more, take more care of my body. And still, I listen for another call. I don’t want those calls to ever end.
I won’t fool you, sometimes I ask myself whether I can still access something essential. I wonder if I can still dive deep and emerge with something real, something that feels true for this time in my life and the life of the world. There are brilliant young writers and teachers out there now, offering new, clamorous voices on behalf of the poor, the marginalized, our suffering planet. Ursula Le Guin wrote: “Truth goes in and out of stories, you know. What was once true is true no longer. The water has risen from another spring.”
I’m aware that truth isn’t found in words, but it can become visible through the words, through what’s said and not said. The blanks between the lines, the commas asking you to slow down, the final period at the end of the sentence—that’s how insight comes.
And there are days when I wonder if I still have it in me to do that or is this something only young people can do now. I feel they’re so ahead of the game in many ways, have realized in a short time what it took me decades to understand. As I wrote earlier, I’ve been a slow learner all my life. Quick learner of trivia, and very slow with the important things.
Can I still be the throat through which something real emerges? Can I find the words? Can I respond to the call?
The phoebe birds in the mailbox have fledged. Yesterday they still lay close to one another in their nest, but when I tried to take a photo, they fluttered their young wings and flew out, landing on neighboring branches. Will they even be in the mailbox today? Or will they finally be gone, and I’ll take down the sign asking not to disturb the nest, go back to using the mailbox for its original purpose?
If not today, tomorrow, or the day after that. And though I didn’t do the work, I’ll feel good that they were hatched and fledged safely and comfortably, in a mailbox people didn’t disturb, and could now fly away.
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