Many of us have received marching orders from the most official of agencies. We have been summoned to a new life path by the most unimpeachable of authorities, as well qualified on the issues that most concern us as any in existence: sickness/health, mobility/paralysis, happiness/sadness, life/death. This authority goes by several aliases: Fate, Reaper, Time, God, Karma, Blind Luck . . . But when the notice arrives that we have been served, we may then realize, at least for a while, that our lives have changed forever.
Let we walk that back a bit. Although we may sense that everything has changed–and people around us may reinforce that sense– it is actually very hard to acknowledge openly that everything about our old life has in fact been altered forever. If we do find ourselves trying to adapt in response to our changed outward circumstances, we are likely to notice how many threads from our past continue to hold us in place, psychologically, emotionally and physically.
It’s as if a hot air balloon has been cleared for ascension, the gas burner turned up full blast, the fabric–now expanded to the size of a house–is straining against the ropes that tether it to the small patch of ground where it was unfurled in the predawn darkness an hour before. But call out as he may, standing in the wicker basket that is now suspended ten feet above the ground–the balloon buoyant above him, ready to be on its way into the unknown space beyond—the pilot cannot catch the attention of anyone standing around below. Is this balloon—like an elephant in the room– invisible to them? One ostensible helper is eating a breakfast burrito with green chili; another is texting on his phone; and a third has struck up a conversation with a young woman from out of state who he thinks may be interested in him but who is really just excited to be at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, thrilled by this gigantic leopard pawing at the sky, ready to leap into the dawn light.
Some of us have been laid off from our jobs; some of us have been diagnosed with a frightening disease and feel a rough hand ready to grab us by the shoulder and pull us off stage; some of us have parents who can no longer live independently; some of us worry about the increasing signs that we too are approaching that final phase of life; and some of us have had our faith stolen by something that has happened or by something that we have done that calls into question our image of ourselves as a good and caring person.
For me, what happened was that our son, Jon, after years saying that he didn’t want to live, took his own life in April 2019. I believe that this must be one of the stronger ways that impermanence can raise its cobra head above the deep grasses of daily life.
But it is not the only one. I’m beginning to feel that I am surrounded by people who are bewildered (or suspended in the past because they are afraid to face something that has happened). Some of us feel isolated and have found no way of adapting to a world that expects us to already know what is expected of us. For those who don’t understand those expectations, it is very hard to see life as an opportunity, let alone a precious blessing.
I am lucky in that regard. I fit in pretty well with a subculture in our society and when people don’t look at me, perhaps neighbors who pass by every day their eyes straight ahead, I write it off as a cloud that has settled over many neighborhoods, like a bank of fog that rolled in years ago and never left.
I find myself at a juncture now. This juncture is a meeting ground in which the past—lapping against the shores of the present—is telling me that I have a story worth sharing. But another voice, arising in this same present, or perhaps an adjacent one, is telling me that it was this past that led up to and in some ways caused my son’s death. So how can such a past be worth sharing? What positive example could it possibly provide to someone else who is also bewildered in their life?
Perhaps if my journey into the future reveals a way of encountering this bewildered sense of inadequacy–which seems so prevalent in our world—then that might speak for someone else’s experience? Perhaps if my journey into the future, which I have not yet undertaken, can serve as an example that all the terrible things that are happening to people near and far don’t have to rob us of the ability to find opportunity and understanding in those grasses that harbored our cobras? Those cobras have separated us from our children at the border, taken a loved one before their time (or before our time, because I for one don’t know what happens after death), and caught us and our families in the jaws of addiction, isolation, and mental illness.
As is true for many of us, when we sense ourselves at a juncture between our past life and what we hope the future can bring to us, I have my own particular life context. In my case, this includes—not just caring for the people in my life and trying to be a good and honest person in my interactions with them—but an activity that is the closest thing for me that provides some stability and the chance to exercise skills that, as a younger person, I sometimes found in work. That activity is writing. (This is not an attempt to write about writing. I’m trying to write about how the past can support us; after all it’s that past that has brought us to this juncture and now provides the resources with which we can venture forth into each new day.)
Writing keeps my mind engaged and allows me to ponder the purpose of life. Like a conversation with a thoughtful and caring friend, writing can be a way to explore, learn from, and share our experiences in this uncertain journey called life. (And may we all have such connections).
It’s in this context that I feel the possibility of connecting my past and my future; through a present juncture in which regret and uncertainty, but also opportunity, are lapping against my eyelids.
From the juncture of my moving present, I want to appreciate times in my personal past that can guide me as I try to move toward acceptance of how I am still here, while Jon is not. One discovery I hope to make is whether the spiritual support I felt I was receiving over the past 40 years is still of value and can continue to support me now.
This morning a thought came to mind and stayed there until I got out of bed before the clock in the living room had a chance to strike 3:00 am.
“Be careful what you ask for”. What I have been asking for is to become more open, more able to remember Jon and understand why he gave up on his life.
At a survivor group meeting yesterday, when asked how I was doing, I choked up. I felt that was a good sign; that perhaps my heart is readying itself to feel more open.
And I’m wondering whether I’m ready for “Beginner’s Mind” (the title and theme of a book by Zen Master Shunryu Susuki) in my life and in my writing. What had felt like a book well underway, a ship of life getting ready to set sail, now feels like hundreds of pages caught up in a sudden squall and lost in the weeds of a barren landscape. Well that’s impermanence for you. When we die, what will all our days at the office, all those pages of observations and reflective declarations, so persistently penned, really mean?
But I’m a little concerned by a parallel that I can sense developing. I had a son who concluded that all his gestures, all his valiant efforts to build and believe in a life, blew away and left him feeling alone and devoid of any connection that could nourish him. And now I’m feeling that my life story is not worth telling (unless I can find in it elements that illuminate the shared human situation that is bringing pain and confusion to more and more of our fellow human beings).
So please join me in a prayer. May each of us find a new mind of hope and understanding arising from the ashes of a world that has grown dark for so many; may each of us find the nourishment we need to live, the courage to accept the truth of the death that will–sooner than we know–come to each of us who are still here, and the caring to guide us as we rise to begin again.