Archive | A Year to Live

Bearing Witness

I always thought that El Capitan and Half Dome will long survive me. I took comfort in thinking that, even if us humans die off, the redwoods, most likely, will survive and continue to thrive, their trunks thickening and their canopy reaching high to a sky that will look more or less the way it does now. I believed some life will go on, even if it is different from what we know today, and some things, some features of this world we love so much, will linger on: perhaps the San Francisco Bay, or the Pacific Ocean, or Mount Rainier. The world will live on, in some shape or form. Life will go on.

Joanna Macy said to walk the razor-edge line between hope and despair. I try, but it is tough advice to follow, sometimes, when so much of what I hold dear is being threatened, and so few people around me seem to care. I care about people, but if it’s us or the world, it’s clear to me who is the one who needs to make way. As long as the world continues, I repeat as a mantra. As long as there’s El Capitan, or Mount Starr King, or Shasta, Mount Olympus, Rainier. In my attempt to hang onto any little bush on top of that razor-edge line, I forget that rocks and mountains, oceans and trees (no matter how long-lived they can be) are also subject to the rules of impermanence. Nothing stays the same. Not even the razor-edge line underfoot.

An Israeli professor, I read in the newspaper, predicts that the earth will turn into Mars or Venus in 200 years (unless we follow the Paris agreement, he says). Edward O. Wilson, the famous myrmecologist, predicts that by 2050 50% of all the species in the world will be gone. I have read accounts that claim that 8 years from now the Central Valley in California will be so hot humans would no longer be able to live there. There’s other, similarly dire theories, but why repeat them all? Joanna Macy said not to believe any of these prophecies. She said to continue to do our work. To walk that razor-edge line. It’s not that we fight for as long as there’s hope, We fight for as long as there’s a cause for which to fight. As long as there are pandas, hummingbirds, ants. As long as there’s Bears Ears. As long as the Colorado River still runs.

A year ago, a young friend was diagnosed with cancer. He began treatment, encountering set-backs one after another, but not losing hope. At least not for long, at least not for a while. A few weeks ago, his mother let us know that he was now in hospice care. To me, heart sinking, heaviness in the chest, contraction all over the body, brain shouting no, it meant that life is almost gone. But it turns out my understanding was inaccurate. Hospice care means living as well as possible and with compassionate care the life we have left. Instead of planning for a faraway future, it means living this moment fully. It doesn’t mean we stop treatment or lose hope. It means opening up to the love — and the life — that’s here.

Joanna Macy said to walk the razor-edge line, but I can’t. I teeter-totter between hope and despair, between sadness and joy, between anger and acceptance. Only one constant stays: I love this world. I love the hummingbirds which come buzzing around my flowering abutilon plant. I love the deer and the rabbits who eat the plants which I plant for them in my garden. I love the flowers cascading down a madrone and the spritz of perfume that accompanies the flowery bouquets of the buckeye. I love this beautiful light blue sky and all the weather that comes with it. I love the sticky sand on the beach, the breaking waves, and the gorgeous pod of dolphins which rode them today to the horizon. My heart, little, fluttering, fearful, opens up to touch these miracles, to hug them, to bear witness that they are here. And I think to myself: we all live with impermanence. We all, the world included (and whether we realize it or not), have the life-limiting condition which is life itself.

A mother, diagnosed with lung cancer, wrote about the irony if she died of a car accident instead of her cancer. I think to myself: our young friend may be sick. He may not live to be 80. But neither might I. We none of us know the day of our death, and neither does the earth. In some ways, we all ought to live with the compassion and love of hospice care, bearing witness to our time here in this life and to the life all around us — to the beauty which surrounds us, the miracle of life which is here. Opening up to the fragility of this world.

My partner said last night: I am sure life exists on other planets. It might, I wanted to say, and it might not. Instead of turning our thoughts once again outwards, why not focus on what is here right under our noses, under our feet, beneath our hands, and to this earthy air breathing in and our of our lungs. This touch, this smell, this sound. This beautiful earth whose day of death may be near or far. We don’t know. We walk the razor-edge line. We fall into despair, and we desperately hope. We sign petitions. We go to vote. We write a blog. And maybe one of these treatments will work, and the earth and its creatures and all the life on it will live on for another day. Maybe the cancer that we have inflicted upon the earth will heal, and maybe it won’t. For now, there is life. That’s all I know for sure. There is this flower and this bit of ground, this humid air, this birdsong, this crush of a wave on the beach, and the laugh of a human child as she runs from the wave along the shore.

0

Year to Live — Day 318 — My Grandma

This morning, I looked in the mirror, and out of it my maternal grandmother stared back at me. The same hair style, eyes, shape of face, the same expression, the same slightly dour down-turned mouth, the same wrinkles. A tear came into my eye. I miss my grandma. I love my grandma, and I know, from my memories of years ago, that my grandma loved me back.

My Grandmother, Safta Chaya, passed away twenty years ago in June of 1996. She had one of those cancers that can’t quite be pinpointed. I’m not sure anyone knew where or what kind exactly the cancer was. She just got sick, and then sicker, and then she died. I was so far away, here in the U.S. while she was in Israel, and I didn’t really manage to understand what it was she had. Even now, the entire progression of the disease and my grandmother’s eventual death are unclear to me. At age 24, I did not quite realize how much her death hit me, how much I cared, and how much I deserved to grieve.

Judaism has a wonderful custom for grieving: the Shiva. For seven days after the passing away of the person, the family congregates at the deceased’s house. Everyone comes: relatives and friends. In the more religious households, prayers are conducted at specific intervals. In other houses, the guests sit and tell or listen to stories. Often (and perhaps surprisingly), the atmosphere is not necessarily heavy with sorrow and tragedy (though those may be present). Rather, in most of the Shivas I attended, people seem to be suffused with gratitude for the community and the love and support that it presents, and with gratitude for the life of the person who has passed away.

I did not fly back to Israel to attend my grandmother’s Shiva, and so I cannot tell you what kind of Shiva my family held for her. Knowing my family from the maternal side, I suspect it might have been (and please don’t faint at my use of this next word) fun and full of humor and love. But thinking about my grandmother’s life, I begin to doubt. My grandmother Chaya (at least in the 24 years I knew her) led a lonely and sad life. A complicated life. Had there been guilt in the family’s mind about not making Safta Chaya’s life easier and happier? About not being there enough for her? I hope not. I hope that during the Shiva, the family were able to celebrate Safta Chaya’s life, and not just to pity or grieve it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandma lately, about how much I loved her and why I loved her, and about how I loved her despite the fact that she was not an easy woman to love. I remember the whole-wheat bread she used to bake from scratch (her father was a real baker with the horse and cart and everything, selling bread he’d baked through town) and some of the other food she’d serve me when I visited her. She used to heat the food in the toaster oven (which my dad probably got for her): vegetables which she cooked before slowly on the stovetop, rice, and sometimes sautéed mushrooms too. Once the food was warm, she’d mix each element with a little bit of oil to give it a freshness, a pizzaz. She would cut salad for us without using a cutting board, calmly and carefully slicing the veggies over the bowl into neat triangles. When we ate, sitting together in her little kitchen, the door to the small kitchen balcony right next to us, I would feel cherished and loved. I could tell it was all for me. I could tell she wanted me there, that she appreciated every moment of the visit. There was a tranquility in that kitchen which I experienced nowhere else in my life.

After lunch, my grandma would play the piano for me — she begun to play the piano when she was perhaps 60 or so years old. She did not play accurately or with a smooth flow, and it was sometimes difficult to listen to her — especially since I played the piano myself and knew what the music was supposed to sound like. But today… today I wish I had listened more. I wish I had asked more questions and heard more stories. I wish I had spent more time with her, this woman who I loved but who was a mystery to me. And I wish those things because I see so many lines of similarities between us. I sense the lines of ancestry that connect us. I recognize those facial lines that proclaim to the world that I am her granddaughter. But most of all, I know that my heart is somehow linked to hers.

I can see the cyclicality of life in my grandma, my mother, and myself. In my daughter. I can see each of us enacting roles that family, culture, history assigned to us. I can see the similarities with which we play these roles even as each of us struggles to find her own place and individuality within our inter-relationships. I am not my mother or my grandmother, and yet I am tied irrevocably to both, just as they are tied to me and my daughter to all of us. A hereditary line of mothers and daughters, passing along love and wisdom and hardship from one to the other.

From the mirror, this morning, my grandma’s eyes looked out at me, and as I realized how much I love her, I also realized how much more love and compassion there is room for me to give to me. My memories of my grandma remain locked up in the glass case of memories, like the one that held her special China set and her little glass figurines, clean of dust but somehow hazy. A faint smell of mothballs, paintings of my aunt from when she was a young woman, the yellow sofa which used to be orange when it stood in the living room, and the shutters, always slanted, shadowing the room against the hot Israeli sun.

My grandmother’s life lives on in us, her female descendants: soft and hard, easy and difficult, clear and confused, but always full of love. My mother and her sisters. Myself, my sister and our cousins. All of our daughters, the fourth generation already born. And beyond us, beyond the barrier of death, all of the grandmothers and mothers and daughters before my grandma, whose life influenced her own and through her ours. I can see them, each trying her best. I’m not sure what it means, all this interconnectedness, but I can see it, feel it in myself. Perhaps, just perhaps, it is here to remind me — and you — that we are ever loved, that we deserve to be loved, and that we are never alone.

0

A Year to Life — Day 343 — The Strenuous Life

This fall, I took an Intro to Park Management class at a local community college, thinking that I might get back to my youthful dream of becoming a ranger. Already in the first meeting, I knew I was in the right place. The class was not only fascinating, but inspiring as well. I got the impression that no matter their age, the teacher believed in each student’s ability to find work in public land management.

The class introduced me to an entire world of history, politics, literature and art that has to do with our public lands. I was fascinated, scribbling down each book recommendation the teacher mentioned and then reading them one by one. My favorite, so far, is Wilderness Warrior by Douglas Brinkley, an environmental biography of Theodore Roosevelt.

Douglas Brinkley's wonderful biography of TR

Douglas Brinkley’s wonderful biography of TR

Roosevelt was an avid hunter and naturalist, a champion of land-and-wildlife preservation and conservation. During his presidency, he set aside nearly 230 million acres under federal protection in 150 national forests, the first 51 federal bird reserves, 5 national parks, the first 18 national monuments, and the first 4 national game preserves. In 60 years of life, Roosevelt was active not only on the conservation front. He was a prolific author, a dedicated letter writer (who wrote an estimated 150 thousand letters), social activist, military leader, adventurous explorer, rancher, nobel peace prize winner, and more.

Roosevelt believed in something he termed “the strenuous life.” Articulating on this concept in an address he gave in Chicago in 1899, he said: “I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.”

Roosevelt, it seems to me, certainly lived the life he preached.

The strenuous life, I confess, is also the life I had always wanted to live. Roosevelt described it: “…the higher life, the life of aspiration, of toil and risk….” Roosevelt’s address, intended to raise public support for war in the Philippines, would have stirred the 18-year-old me to the core. I too believed in public service to one’s country. I did not yet think of war as something to be avoided, but as an opportunity for glory, heroism, and self sacrifice. I longed to live the strenuous life, to prove myself worthy. As Roosevelt said in his speech: “We do not admire the man of timid peace. We admire the man who embodies victorious effort.” I, too, wished to be that man… or, er, that woman.

Some historians believe now that Roosevelt’s energy came from having had bipolar disorder — without ever suffering from the depression side. To me, whether Roosevelt’s energy was due to a mental disorder may or may not be an important point. I recognize in Roosevelt’s philosophy the highest ideal which I have placed before my eyes throughout my life. Knowing that this philosophy may be what we could call insane is a moot point. Most of our beliefs, after all, tend to seem illogical, unreasonable, even crazy to other people, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to stop believing in them. As a society both Israelis and Americans seem to live a life of yearning for this principle, that work will save us, that work is the highest ideal of all.

I have lately developed the belief that a lot of my suffering is caused by putting work, or the strenuous life, if you will, up on a pedestal. The other day, my therapist said that rather than try to let go of always pushing myself to be doing more (and thinking I was never enough), I needed to accept the part who always pushes me to be doing more. Perhaps for affection’s sake, I should name that part Teddy, to remind myself that it is just a part, not all of me, who wants to live this strenuous life. And it is not all of me. There are parts of me who long for peace and ease, for acceptance of things as they are. There are parts of me who are overwhelmed by this constant pushing for more and are feeling mowed over and need a break from all this doing in order to figure out what, if anything, wants to be done.

Practicing life in the face of “A Year to Live,” I find myself less willing to rush and more interested in savoring. I find myself wanting to cherish moments rather than chase through them. I begin to understand that living this year as though it is my last is not about doing more, or doing at all. As a beginning, at least, it is about understanding that nothing needs to be changed, and that my life is right and whole just as it is. In a way, the bucket list can wait for after my death. For now, I’m just going to live as though I am, in fact, going to live today.

 

To read Theodore Roosevelt’s 1899 speech given in Chicago, click here, “The Strenuous Life

A lot of the information in this article came from this page in the Theodore Roosevelt Association website.

Some interesting discussion of the possibility TR was bipolar can be found in this article.

0

A Year to Live — Day 344 — Flowers at Coe

On Wednesday this week, my friend and I made our way to Henry Coe State Park to see the wildflowers. The rain had pummeled our area for several days, and the morning of March 9th dawned cloudy, misty and drizzly. Despite the bleak weather, we did not lose heart. Instead, bringing with us enough rain gear to make a New Zealand explorer feel sanguine (and leaving dry shoes and socks in the car), we waded out into the water-logged Coe wilderness.

The hills, as Julie Andrews could have sung, were alive with the sound of damp greenness. Light rain fell on us when we passed beneath the sopping leaves of trees. The trail led us up through the clouds, and though I knew the view stretched miles to the south, we could not see farther than a few feet of the slope below us.

In the meadow above Monument Trail, a few irises radiated their gentle purple-blue leaves like a three-pronged compass, looking fragile and battered and wet. A glorious perfume wafted from the just-opening flowers of the madrone; its red trunk, as yet smooth and un-peeling, looked fresh and bloody after the rain. Farther up, shooting stars, lupine and Indian warriors covered the sides of the road, colorful against the fertile brown-green background of the slippery-slopey trail.

Hound's tongue growing at Henry Coe State Park.

Hound’s tongue growing at Henry Coe State Park.

Down below Frog Lake, a fork of Coyote Creek blocked our way, the water flowing clear and cold over the trail. We took off our shoes and waded, barefoot, to the other side. We climbed, exhilarated by damp, muddy feet, the 0.2 miles to the lake. Expanding wave-rings in the water and a “plop” gave the only hint of frogs jumping into the lake one by one, like a tumbling line of invisible dominoes. My friend had brought a birthday picnic: egg and avocado sandwiches, baby bell peppers and cucumber spears, roasted chestnuts, chocolate, bananas and tangerines. A feast. We dug in, hungry already, not minding the cold, wet ground.

The trail back to the visitor center led us up in a gentle slope through meadows of wildflowers, under oak trees, and through a low manzanita forest. On a hillside, I sought out the elusive purple mouse ears. I’d heard this tiny flower grew on Corral Trail on one of the grassy slopes, but I had never seen it. On this trip, however, like a nature birthday gift, we found several of them hiding in between the grasses, all purply and fat, their ears laying wet and heavy close to their heads as they stared at us above their crown of chubby, light-green leaves.

Driving home, now in unforeseen sunshine, I thought of my expectations for this birthday and my hope that I will celebrate, for once, a happy day. I thought about the purple mouse ears, about the frogs diving into the lake, and the other wildflowers, abundant as they came alive, so ephemeral, with the rain. Next February, as our year to live winds down, these flowers will be but a memory, pictures in the mind’s eye, but together with this last birthday they will have left a pleasant, treasured feeling in my heart.

At home, Dar arranged gifts on our dining table. Yet another surprise. A huge bouquet of flowers towered above wrapped boxes for me and the kids. I look at it now and the impermanence of all around me strikes me hard. This bouquet with its bold colors looks so solid and real, but in the next few days the flowers will begin to fade and die. They too, as Stephen Levine says in his book, began to die on the day their seeds were put in the womb of the ground. I long to take a picture of the flowers and restrain myself. Let them be, I whisper to myself, and let them, peacefully, easefully, naturally, die.

Click here to view the picasa photo album for this hike.

0

A Year to Live — Day 350

Getting Things Done

My daughter had the day off on Friday, and this meant I had a little more time in my usually-hurried-and-stressed-out morning. Most weekdays, but especially on Tuesday when both kids need lunches, I often feel  as though I am juggling pans, lunch boxes, chickens, dogs and my own needs under Jupiter-gravity conditions. On Friday, however, I leisurely set the alarm for a 45-minute meditation. I could have found, all too easily, other chores in the house that needed attention, but I forcibly subdued the urge to get one more thing off my list. Don’t Just Do Something, Sit there, is the humorous title of one of Sylvia Boorstein’s meditation-instruction books. I made the conscious choice to just sit there and not do.

When I came back to the kitchen 45 minutes later, however, my eyes fell on the to-do list, the one that’s been sitting on the counter for the past week. My heart sunk. That list’s been haunting me, remonstrating and reminding me I have not yet began to do several of the items on it. “When will you start?” It harangued me. “When will you finish?” And in an irritable tone: “You should have folded the laundry instead of sitting like some kind of bum.”
todo list
Perhaps the meditation had worked it’s magic and my mind was clear enough to see this, but as I breathed in and out, the realization struck me like lightning: No matter how much I work on my to-do list, it will never be completely done. There will always be more items that can be added to it. Whether it is small daily tasks like walking the dogs, cleaning the chicken coop, and unloading the dishwasher, or larger one-time tasks like coordinating the 7th grade bake sale or finishing my Bridge to Emergency Medical Responder class, the to-do list will never, ever stand on zero items. Never.

So why do I expect myself to get it all done?

When people die, I often hear relatives speak about the unfinished business the deceased had left behind. Some times it’s a messy house which the children need to clean up, pack up and dispose of. Some times it’s the details of the burial or the inheritance. I too, if I died today, will have died before signing my new will, which I’d been postponing for about a year now (though it is ready and waiting for me to sign). I wonder, though: does anyone ever die with all their business done, all the bills paid off, all documents settled, all chores completed, every single loose end tied?

This past week felt very stressful to me. Hassled and harassed, no matter how much I did, there was always more to be done. Like a clown trying to keep all the juggling balls in the air, I strove to extend my arms so I could reach all the chores at once. There may be times, I suppose, when it really is necessary to juggle more than one task at a time. Often, however, I wonder what is making me feel this desperate-and-all-encompassing need to “get things done.” What will happen if some balls/tasks were never picked up? What would happen if I picked some up and then dropped them? What would happen if someone else picked up a ball that I dropped? Will these be the big disasters I expect?

The clues to my struggle with the doing/non-doing are rooted deep in my cultural heritage. My maternal great-grandparents arrived in Israel with the reactionary immigration wave known as the Second Aliyah. These immigrants arrived steeped in socialist-zionist ideology, and many of their ways of seeing the world have lasted to the 21st century, creating the cultural environment, moral values and religious ethics with which I grew up. The Second Aliyah Jews believed in becoming a new kind of Jew whose spirituality was tied up with working the land. This belief, expounded by A. D. Gordon in the early part of the 20th century, eventually came to be called “the religion of labor.”

Labor as a religion. Get it?

If getting things done is akin to religious dogma, small wonder that I struggle so much with how much I get done. If I believe in the absolute truth of Doing, then even my just sitting there in meditation must show concrete results and consequences. Rest is dangerous. A nap is mortal sin. Letting someone else do my job is opening the door to the devil and all his brood.

And after all these words that I’ve just piled, I realize only three matter in the end: compassion and non-judgement. These words offer not a solution, but a truce of sorts: Can I be with the pain of the conflict between how I’ve been raised and how I choose to live my life without judging myself? Can I look on with compassion at all the tasks still gobbling up the space on the to-do list? And when I cannot take better care of myself in the midst of all these judgements and tasks, can I at least be compassionate for and not judge that?

….to be continued.

whitetara

White Tara, the goddess of compassion.

This exploration of my relationship to Doing is inspired by the class “A Year to Live” which I am taking at Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society in SF.

0

A Year to Live — Day 352

The Last Birthday

Till the last few days, I had never before considered the possibility that every birthday could be my last. Like many people’s, my birthday is a sensitive subject. While I hadn’t really obsessed much about my age since my 19th birthday (when I felt hit by the realization that I was leaving my childhood behind), my birthdays have become for me a symbol of appreciation and love. Or, more often (and whiningly so), the lack thereof.

When the children were younger, and after my divorce, I made up my mind to treat my birthday as an opportunity to show kindness and love to others. I was disgusted by and impatient of what I considered my unhealthy habit of looking for love outside of myself. Instead, I reasoned, I would radiate love out. This brought about several years in which rather than expect gifts for myself, I shopped extensively for gifts that would bring pleasure and love for the kids. Rather than dream about waking up the morning of my birthday to my own surprise table full of gifts and treats, I decorated the house and created a surprise table for the kids.

My famous angel food cake with pink clouds and strawberries, our traditional cake during all birthdays.

My famous angel food cake with pink clouds and strawberries, our traditional cake during all birthdays.

In the last few years, however, a new factor was brought into my tenuous status-quo with this need to be loved. This factor was a new boyfriend, and one, moreover, who showed himself right from the start as considerate, thoughtful, and prone to giving gifts. On our second date (which was on a Christmas Eve), Dar showed up with a ribboned and wrapped box containing a Spot device (a device that helps locate lost hikers), the perfect gift for an avid hiker. For our third date, he showed up with chocolate-covered strawberries which he made himself (I had told him they were my favorites). For Valentine’s Day, he gave me two bouquets of flowers. One was a bouquet of pink tulips, I think. I loved that one. For my 39th birthday, Dar gave me several gifts. One, I remember, was the most elaborate box of chocolates I have ever seen. The chocolates came in a pink ruffled box that I still keep. Can you blame me if my expectations, after this beginning, reached an almost hysterical peak? Add to this my 40th birthday, the next year, which included two birthday cakes (one baked and hand-decorated by a friend’s talented daughter) and a cartoon artist who drew the guests.

I think you will not wonder, then, at hearing that I consider my next three birthdays a gigantic flop. The worst, perhaps, was the birthday we spent with the kids playing badminton (they fought so much, the two of them, that I had to remove myself before I started screaming) and then having lunch at the Cheesecake Factory (the waiter and manager claimed they had nothing either wheat-free or dairy-free they could bring me to eat, and I spent the meal food-less watching the others eat).

My 44th birthday is coming up in a few days, and even before I figured out that it was going to be my last, I’d been thinking what I could do to make this birthday different. I tried to see my patterns of behavior that lead me again and again to be afraid of asking for what I need, instead trying to please the rest of the family with my choices as to how to spend my birthday. If it was really and only up to me, after all, we’d spend my birthday camping out for a night somewhere in the wilderness. (Eden: “NOOOO!” Uri: “No way. Do it on your own time,” and, “Even Dar doesn’t want to go with you”). Every year I try to find something to do which, heaven help us, everyone might enjoy, and every year it looks like my best efforts do not pay off. Not to mention, in addition to this, the small voice in my head which says: “Why are they not planning my birthday? Why are they not trying to please ME for a change?”

I’m not sure this birthday is going to be all that different, except, perhaps, in my own mind. The gifts for my three important people are already piling up in a secret location in the bedroom. I’ve also decided to decorate the house — I deserve it, after all, just as much as they do. I’ve made a reservation for fondue at a restaurant which pretty much we all like. What is different, however, is my acute realization that this birthday might very well be my last.

Of course, any birthday might be our last. The not-knowing the day of our death is built-in, unquestionably present every moment we are alive. For all I know, my last birthday may have been my 43rd — after all, like all of us, I am not really assured of surviving till February 20th, 2017 — I am only committing to live till then as though that day is my last. But if this coming birthday is the last birthday I am going to celebrate, I would like to give myself the gift of at least some of the time celebrating it the way I’d like.

Inside of me, I can just barely touch the well of sadness and anger about the way I’ve let my other birthdays go, the way I never said what I needed, never expressed what I wished, never insisted, never taught the kids that my dreams too deserve to be a factor in our relationship. Instead, I’ve been teaching them quite dramatically that a parent needs to live for his or her children. A part of me, in fact, still believes it. Any deviation from this belief is a huge struggle that I overcome only rarely, and only in bits. But the rational part of me, the part that thinks that, actually, I deserve to exist as a separate human being with her own needs and wishes and dreams, that part keeps saying: “Sigal, this belief is not the truth.” And it says: “You have to teach the kids that. You have to teach them to be free.” And it remarks, ironically: “In the hurry to teach them that they matter, you may have taught them that they won’t matter when they’re adults.”

On Wednesday next week, in honor of my 44th birthday, I have taken the day off, and I am going to head up to my most beloved park to check out the wildflowers. I haven’t been up there in a long time, and I’m eager to revisit my favorite spots. In a five-hour hike, I will not be able to cover all thousands of acres of park, so many of which I know like the back of my hand, but I will be able to get a taste of wilderness. Later that day, we will go to fondue, and it will either be great, or it won’t. But in any case, the success of the dinner will not matter in the way it usually does, because I will have already celebrated my birthday for myself earlier that day in the park I love.

0

A Year to Live — Day 357

On Noting

This morning I got up and reminded myself that I need to keep reading the book A Year to Live for class. The book, after which the class is named, was written by meditation teacher Stephen Levine. It is a short but dense and lyrical book, with long windy sentences that seem to dance around themselves, the words entwining and looping so that I often need to reread sentences to make sure I understand.

Ever since I wrote my last blog post a few days ago, I’d been thinking about my backpack of grudges. My therapist, with whom I proudly shared my understanding about letting go of grudges this year, surprised me by not quite entering into my enthusiasm for this Letting Go Project. Basically (I am loosely paraphrasing her) she said that with my history of suppressing anger, it would be a better idea not to concentrate on the end result (letting go), but on the process (exploring where this anger lives in the body, how old this part that feels the anger may be, what does it need from me, etc).

As you can imagine, I was righteously indignant at Jeanne’s implication that my beautiful realization about letting go the backpack of grudges is really another attempt to avoid facing the issue. But, of course, Jeanne was right. I would very much like just to let go of all my anger without dealing with it. I don’t do anger very well, and any opportunity, spiritual or otherwise, of getting rid of it makes me (metaphorically) want to jump up and howl with unrestrained joy.

“Fine,” I said. “Whatever. I’ll feel the anger, if you insist. I’ll turn into a red, whirling Tasmanian devil. I’ll destroy all my relationships, only to rebuild them on healthier grounds. I’ll go through the storm in order to come out a calmer, more-at-peace woman.” This declaration was followed by a pleasantly meditative period of resting in the now-righteous-happiness of having passed through all the —excuse my word — excrement, and having come out all-healed-up, a quiet, peaceful, concentrated woman. This only lasted for a few seconds, until Jeanne interrupted to remind me that, actually, I haven’t yet gone through the — excuse my word — excrement. That step is still before us, she said. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.

So for the past few days I’ve been trying to see what is going on for me when I remember one of my grudges, and let me tell you, the answer to this question is, “Not much.” I have gotten so good at suppressing and depressing all unpleasant emotions, that when the time comes to feel them, my mind will go everywhere but to the pain. This feeling and investigating the hard stuff is turning out to be, well, hard.

"Letting go a little brings a little peace. Letting go a lot brings a lot of peace. Letting go completely brings complete peace." Ajahn Chah.

“Letting go a little brings a little peace. Letting go a lot brings a lot of peace. Letting go completely brings complete peace.” Ajahn Chah.

Back to this morning and my determination to read some more of Stephen Levine’s book. Once again, as I read, I found myself somewhat detached from the actual content of the chapter. Levine was repeating in it something which I’d heard Jack Kornfield and other teachers talk about often: as we sit in meditation, we allow thoughts to come and go in our mind, noting them as they come but not becoming attached to them. The noting can be simply, “thinking, thinking,” or a more specific noting like ”sadness, sadness.” After about three paragraphs of the chapter, it dawned on me that Levine was offering this idea of noting as an important practice for our last year of life. He was suggesting that I actually do this practice when I sit in meditation. Ok. I regrouped, and, deciding I would try this for a few moments (Levine suggests starting with five minutes), I closed my eyes and allowed myself to follow my thoughts.

A moment later I opened my eyes. Here are the thoughts and feelings I noted in about five in-and-out breaths: pain, sadness, constriction around my heart, my contracted belly, heaviness, stress, pressure, tight shoulders, aversion to feeling so many unpleasant emotions, yearning to open my eyes, the thought that continuing to read the book will distract me from all this pain.

I opened my eyes, kept reading, and felt what could only be described as a minor earthquake. It turned out I had only one short paragraph left in the chapter. Here is what it said:

“How many states of mind in five minutes, in five hours, in five days, in five lifetimes? How often has our life passed unnoticed? How soon will we accept this opportunity to be fully alive before we die?”

I think, perhaps, I finally understand what Jeanne had been saying for years now. By suppressing my anger and all other negative emotions, hiding beneath the depression, sending as outcasts my parts which are trying to express these emotions, I have, in a way, been only partly alive. By feeling the unpleasant emotions, even though they are unpleasant, I will be allowing myself to live, truly, for the first time.

Sadness at so much time lost. Heaviness around the heart. Exhilaration and hope. Tears starting to burn the edges of my eyes. My breath, in and out of my chest. Tingling in my fingers with the urge to write. Sadness again, and anger at having lost time. My throat constricting with the effort to express myself. The space around me, and my heart beating, quietly, softly, with the passage of time.

0

A Year to Live — 361 Days

Holding Onto Grudges

A deer at Rancho from a few years ago. I thought it appropriate to the idea of freedom and letting go.

A deer at Rancho from a few years ago. I thought it appropriate to the idea of freedom and letting go.

On Tuesday, I went for a hike with a new friend, J-N, who I met that morning for the first time. We were supposed to hike with another woman, a mutual friend, but since she couldn’t come, J-N and I found ourselves in the funny position of meeting for a hike without ever having seen each other before. Despite our lack of familiarity with each other, we quickly dove into the depths of a rather personal conversation. From talking about love of the outdoors, to sharing how we met our life’s partners, we soon progressed to speaking about life itself, and through that, to my year to live and my death in (now) 361 days.

As we talked and walked, I found myself time and again complaining about grievances from my past. “Wow, I am still bearing a grudge,” I commented each time, wondering at myself for my ultra-long memory in keeping resentments. I was carrying my usual, regular backpack, as I always do, but as one grudge after another flickered to life in my memory, it occurred to me that my physical backpack was not the only one I was carrying. There I was, in the greenness and beauty of a gloriously wild place, in the sunny clarity of a California summery winter day, carrying on my back a gaggle of grudges, seemingly without any intention to let them go.

Our walk passed through rolling meadows, low oak forests, and inside the brim of a gorge almost completely overrun by fallen and uprooted trees and shrubs (perhaps the result of the last storm). Still-green trees and shrubs lay in the path of the creek, creating what could almost be a dam, and we wondered what would happen in the creek bed when the rains came again. “Erosion,” J-N said, looking at the destruction around us. We couldn’t help but imagine the violence of the storms that brought about so much collapse, that worked their way by wind and water around the roots of these trees, till finally those mighty beings could hold onto the ground no more, and even they, the giants of the earth, succumbed to the inevitability of the circle of life.

Grudges work the same way, I thought. They insidiously wear away at the foundations, exhausting good will, trust, and peace of mind. Even the tallest tree or the hardiest shrub cannot withstand the repeated corrosive efforts of resentment. I looked in the face of each one of my grudges as they came up, and I was surprised to see how little true emotion was left in them. Rather, these grudges I was holding onto, as though my world depended on them, were like a frayed tale, told so many times that it no longer held any meaning.

“As you hike,” a friend once suggested a meditation, “imagine you are carrying with you a backpack filled with all your sorrows, upsets, ill will, and anger. While hiking up a mountain, pause once in a while, perhaps during switchbacks in the trail, and imagine yourself opening the backpack and taking something out. Leave these by the side of the trail, one at a time. You can always pick them up on your way back, if you need to, but perhaps by the time you hike down you will realize you no longer need those burdens you’ve carried, and you can leave them there to be recycled back into the earth.”

In these last 361 days which I have before I die, I would like to let go of as many grudges and resentments as I can. For a moment there, during my hike with J-N, I could see with utter clarity what it would be like not to carry these grudges anymore, to hike without the backpack of resentment. If you’ve ever gone backpacking before, you know the relief of setting your pack down after a long day of hiking. The backpack, containing everything you need to live in the woods for a while, becomes a part of the body, turning you into a big turtle who is carrying its house. Setting it down is like a revelation, a release, a freedom that can only be experienced, impossible to describe.

I have carried my grudges long. I have brought them with me so far. But now, I think, it is time to set them down, one at a time. Like ultra-light backpacking, or like John Muir hiking only with his tin cup and a blanket, so do I too wish to complete the journey of my life with as little baggage as I can. Whether this means forgiving myself, forgiving others, or begging others for their forgiveness, I am getting ready to step into the creek bed and allow the water and the wind to wear the foundations of my grudge-constructs down. These stories I’ve been telling myself for so long, unlike the trees downed that I saw in my hike with J-N, were never really alive. It is time, as Jack Kornfield says, to let go of all hope of a better past. I like this idea. Wish me luck.

 

The class “A Year to Live” is offered by Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society in SF. It is based on the book A Year to Live by Stephen Levine.

0

A Year To Live — 364 Days

Yesterday, during a somewhat innocent meditation class, I received a prognosis for an untreatable condition called Life. I have only one year to live. Perhaps less. The prognosis did not surprise me too much. I had been preparing for the class (which is based on the book, A Year to Live, by Stephen Levine) and for the prognosis for a few weeks now. What struck me, though, was the realization of how fleeting my life really is.

Eight years ago, I signed up for a trip which fascinated me to no end. It was a backpacking-and-mountaineering trip into the depths of the Olympic Rainforest to climb Mount Olympus. Who among us did not long, at least for once in their life, to visit the abode of the gods? I never wondered at the Greeks for believing that their gods lived on top of a seemingly unreachable, snowy mountain. Had I been a god, I would have wanted to live on a pristine snowy peak, with the view of a thousand mountains, valleys and plains around me. Best of all, reaching Mount Olympus required passing through all these mountains and Valleys. I loved the idea of backpacking 15 miles in order to reach the mountain. The remoteness, the scenery, the adventure, all appealed to me.

A few days before I was due to leave, my son fell off a slide and broke his arm, a moving fracture that looked terrifying and required a reduction at the hospital. For a moment, I was not sure if I would be able to leave for my trip, but then it was the day of my flight, and I was going. My son was alright with the cast, not really requiring any extraordinary amount of care other than, perhaps, with showering. His dad was to take care of him, and I gave myself permission to go.

I still remember getting to my hotel (it was a Holiday Inn Express not too far from the Seattle Needle). I remember having breakfast the next morning, inquiring about leaving my huge, now mostly empty white bag with clean clothes and some toiletries with the front desk till I returned, dragging my blue pack, so full of stuff that my ice axe and boots and crampons were hanging off the back like I was some medieval peddler. I remember seeing Pat and Alan, the two guides, and thinking they might be a father and son. I remember the equipment check on the floor in the Mountain Madness office, and what I thought when I first saw Mel, Mel who turned out to be my best friend on the trip.

And then we were away and driving and crossing the sound and driving some more and in the parking lot, checking equipment again and splitting up the food and group equipment, and I remember shouldering the heaviest pack I had ever carried, quite possibly 45 or 50 pounds to my barely 115. And then we were off, hiking fast through some of the most beautiful scenery I had ever seen, swallowing up the miles.

Seemingly, I remember everything about this trip: the rainforest teeming with green life, the Hoh River flowing merrily and twinkling next to the trail for most of the way, how cold it was in the early morning when we began our climb, and how steep Snow Dome was. I remember getting to know the other seven men in the group (I was the only woman), crossing the avalanche zone, the beauty of the Blue Glacier. And of course, the top of Mount Olympus, and rock climbing up and down-climbing and rappelling down. But most of all, I remember our last night on the trail. We slept on an island in the middle of the Hoh, except, I couldn’t sleep. I lay on the sand in my sleeping bag, and the echoes of the trip pounded in my blood and the river flowed through my veins, both calling to me to stay forever. Stay, every leaf whispered, every grain of sand. There was only the river and the forest and the wonderful people on the climb. Home seemed far away and unreal. Only the Here was alive and true, and it seemed impossible to me that the night, stretching starry and bright around me, would ever end.

On Snow Dome with the tip Mount Olympus peeking in the background.

Mel and I on breaking our first camp, comparing the various sizes of our packs. His weighed more than I did.

Mel and I on breaking our first camp, comparing the various sizes of our packs. His weighed more than I did.

 

I climbed Mount Olympus in August of 2008. Back in the car, we drove with the windows slightly open — everyone stunk after five days with no showers. We had lunch together (I remember the waitress asking Alan for an ID — he was twenty-two at the time), and then we were dropped off at our hotels. I showered and soaped several times before I was clean, wandered around Seattle for a time, and had dinner by myself at a pizza parlor near the Needle. The next day I flew home. The adventure was over, then it was gone, and then, before I knew it, it lay buried under the dust of many days, weeks, months and years, a shiny memory with mothballs.

This year, my last to live, I would like to live as I have lived on Mount Olympus, enjoying every breath, every smell, the sight of every blade of grass, feeling raw and real. Because this year, the last year of my life, is going to go by the same way as my trip had. Here today, with 364 days to go, it seems like it would go on forever, but as I blink, only 60 days will remain, and then 3 and 2 and 1, and soon a marker will be the only thing reminding you where you put the last physical remnant that I’d been here. And then, while you blink and take your breaths, it will be 2025, and you would wonder, could it really have been seven years?

Isn’t life surreal? Isn’t life just so, so real?

The adventure, so soon to end, begins, and it was only appropriate, you know, that it would begin with a blog post.

0

Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109