Merry Christmas, everyone.
As a child growing up in an orthodox Jewish home, I always heard about how dangerous Christmas was to Jews over the centuries, the start of pogroms and forced conversions. For this reason I used to look away from beautiful Christmas trees and bah-humbugged against gorgeously wrapped gifts (though I have a distinct memory of looking wide-eyed with jealousy when I was 8 at a new electric train set my friend Michael, son of our Catholic landlords downstairs, got for the holiday).
All that’s changed. Nelson Mandela wrote that the way he learned to go forward in bitter, dark times was to “keep one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward.” That’s how I feel this Christmas morning, even in the face of my mother’s continuing deterioration, the death of a brother-in-law two days ago, and other disruptions not mine to disclose.
At the same time, the dogs spent 2 hours unpacking enormous marrow bones; there’s nothing quite like the sound of Harry’s teeth grinding away at his bone behind my chair, while Aussie takes hers outside, stretches on the snow like it’s a sandy beach, and gets to the serious business of gristle.
I think a lot about Ram Dass. He died several days ago, but he appears alive and vibrant in memory and imagination, especially this Christmas Day.
In 1999, some two years after RD’s big stroke, Bernie and I visited him at his home in California. He was weak then, though able to walk (he couldn’t do that later). “I am getting silenter and silenter,” is what he said to us. It was the first time I ever spent some time with him alone.
On the way home Bernie said to me, “I wonder why he chooses to keep on going.”
“Do you think he can control that?” I asked him.
He nodded. “I think people like RD can.”
I thought of that exchange many times, especially after Bernie had his big stroke. As bad as that was, he wasn’t as afflicted as Ram Dass. Bernie was able to walk slowly, with a cane, to the day of his death. His talk, while slow and laborious, was still stronger than Ram Dass’s. When the two would Skype together, at the end Bernie with some difficulty could bring both hands together in gassho, while RD could only hold vertical one hand and give a big grin.
But it was Bernie who died almost 3 years after his stroke; if there was choice in the matter, then he chose not to continue teaching, living, and practicing, while RD did that for over 22 years post-stroke.
We had the good fortune of visiting with RD in Maui over a period of years. Several times we stayed at his home. We got together at meals, I’d go with him into his pool and do the aquatic exercise tapes he followed, we took him out to dinner. He had treatments almost every single day, doctors and therapists sometimes visiting round-the-clock. He made special effort at meals to talk and be a gracious host. And of course, there were the famous Monday swims down at the beach, when a small group assembled to push him in his beach chair into the water to a depth in which he could finally swim, and he would stroke his way forward to the line of buoys a distance away. We’d all follow, get to the buoy and touch it with our hands, exclaiming at the very top of our voices: Oh buoy! Oh buoy!
I have no illusions about his travails, about how circumscribed his life was, how a man who’d loved to travel and talk in front of thousands, raising money for the Seva Foundation and inspiring people in so many countries, became a prisoner at home, reliant on ramps, small elevators, and suspension chairs that got him into pools and water, with caregivers assisting with body functions, going frequently in and out of hospitals because of new infections and respiratory problems.
“The nights are tough,” he’d say quietly.
For this reason, upon hearing of his death at the Tel-Aviv airport, I shut my eyes and felt quietly glad for his release.
In the face of all that suffering, how do you understand his joy? For he had joy, along with his friend and fellow ager/sager, Reb Zalman Schachter, Founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement. You couldn’t miss it in their eyes. And you can’t get it till you realize that the love they felt for this life was not for the life most of us live, defined by who we think we are, what we want, what we need, what we pray for, but for something far beyond that.
Servant of God was the name he received, and maybe that’s what it comes to. He welcomed students and practitioners, was energized by workshops and retreats and the people who called him guru. But in the end, it was God he loved. “I am more and more with my Guru,” he liked to say. I believe that’s what kept him going.
And it keeps many of us going, the unseeable face of a life that is both here and now and beyond the tropes of words and thoughts. It gets more important every day as we face the end of life as we’ve known it, realizing how much of our civilization will disappear in less than a century. How do we keep going? How did RD and Bernie keep going after being stroked, seeing clearly that it was the end of so many things for them? The earth has been stroked too, gouged, burned, desiccated for so long. Seeing all this clearly, how did they go on? How do we go on?
By serving what is there beyond me. Realizing that when the Buddha said that everything is impermanent, he meant everything! By discovering a refuge and calm in not-knowing, rather than fear and anxiety; discovering and rediscovering that not-knowing is not some dull, passive veil, but a vibrant beckoning to keep on going. By keeping our heads pointed to the sun, our feet move forward even when they can’t feel the ground underneath, as RD’s and Bernie’s couldn’t, while their heads pointed toward a sun that sets and rises and sets and rises.
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