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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

lilac days*
taking them with me
to the grave

*Based on a love haiku to appear in a forthcoming Magnapoets anthology.
I'm not superstitious
why do you ask
about God
the way clouds
quietly disperse
final nights
in the house
a new creak
last night
during a dream about my departed dad
I followed him
opening the blinds
she would have been 110*

* Honoring my mother's mother, Magaret Deutsch, whose birthday was August 24th
all the places
I never saw
buried with me
December 31st
one of those days
my death day
It dawned on me that I don't necessarily have to share musings before I can post a poem... I can simply post a poem. That's what I may do for a while. Here is one that I wrote on Sunday:

fading fast
the low hoot
of an owl

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Irvin Yalom is a renowned existential psychiatrist, and has written a book about facing one's anxiety about death; it's called STARING AT THE SUN. He was recently interviewed and asked directly if death anxiety ever grabs hold of him any more (he's in his later 70s). Yalom responded: "Every once in a while, your barriers break down. You get back to this certain gasp, because there's no way to reverse time."

I was taken aback by Yalom's use of the word gasp. That is exactly what happens when the mind comes face-to-face every so often with one's own finiteness. There's the shock of truth and a gasp--a sudden, momentary loss of breath. The mind seizes for an instant.

There's nothing to be done about this. The truth of mortality or impermanence is inescapable despite the mind's determined efforts to escape. Well, if we can't escape, perhaps we can at least build a poem around the inescapable fact of life... turning a gasp into...

suddenly there's a window
in the sky

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Last night, during a moment of ease, I looked around our living room while sitting in a comfortable recliner. I looked at a large bookcase that is filled to the brim with books; I gazed at the piano that my partner used to enjoy playing before she became chronically ill. There are some prints on the wall that we enjoy looking at and there are a few ceramic pieces that I made some twenty years ago which are scattered about the living room.

One day all of these will be cleared out and shipped off to the Salvation Army or Good Will or tossed in a big dumpster and hauled to the local dump. These possessions are all valuable to me now but will have no meaning at all once I'm gone. I mistakenly believe that they represent me in some way. They are not me; even this body is not me. It is a "rental"; all of it is on loan, belonging to nobody, in the end.

checkout time is noon
I turn in the key
and everything else
Without agreeing or disagreeing, I invite you to listen to an observation that J. Krishnamurti made in a talk entitled, "The Full Significance of Death," which appears in THE POCKET KRISHNAMURTI:

"As one is the master of psychological time, can one live with death and not keep it separate as something to be avoided, postponed, something to be put away? Death is part of life. Can one live with death and understand the meaning of ending? That is[,] to understand the meaning of negation; ending one's attachments, ending one's beliefs, by negating. When one negates, end, there is something totally new. So, while living, can one negate attachment completely? That is living with death."

I am struck by two things in the forgoing chapter: I am the master of psychological time; and to negate--end--my attachments is living with death. I ordinarily think of myself as the victim of time; I am powerless before the bulldozer of time. Krishnamurti is saying precisely the opposite: I am the master of time, which is psychologically constructed. From his point of view, the ending of thought is the ending of psychologically constructed time and, with the ending of time, one is instantly--and forever--freed from the fear fear of death.

To realize the "me" IS what generates time is the first and last step in attaining freedom. The self continues through thought, through attachment and identification. Krishnamurti proposes that through meditative awareness the ending of attachment is possible. Without attachment, clinging, the self dissolves. In fact, in another essay entitled, "Understand What Love Is," he explicitly observes: "Can we live with death, and can thought and time have a stop? They are all related. Do not separate time, thought, and death. It is all one thing."

Yes. dying to thought, to time, to ego or self, is to enter into Eternity. There is nothing nihilistic in what Krishnamurti is proposing. The body has its inevitable end, but not awareness. Through the negation of attachment there is the quiet and pervasive joy of unending awareness.

not smoke
not ashes
blue gray sky

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Every once in a while it hits me: One day I will no longer be on this plant in human form. This realization never ceases to shock me. I can't recall what jolted me into this latest awareness. Writing about death puts death at a safe distance even as it enables me to study it more closely.

I am filled with great sadness when I think of being gone. It's a tender sadness--a soft spot, an aching--in the heart area of my chest. I don't want to die. I want to live forever, and I can't. No one does.

There is nothing to be done about this. It just is. All I can do is take care of my life while I am still alive. There's a feeling of kindness toward myself that comes into awareness when I think about my own limited time remaining. This feeling of kindness has been a long time coming.

cold, unmoving
a hospice nurse
pulls up the blanket

Sunday, September 12, 2010

My mother, who is in her 84th year, has struggled with disabling guilt all her life. Everything "bad" that happens in life is somehow made to be her fault in my mother's mind.

Since my father died, my mother has spent more and more time watching television. She's obsessed with the weather channel and the news. My mother knew more about the recent fire/explosion in San Bruno, which is 3,000 miles from her, than I did. Slowly but surely, she has come to see that the planet is very complex and volatile, resulting in many natural disasters. When I talked to her by phone the other day, she had a spring in her voice when she told me, "I have the title for the book I'm going to write." Excitedly, I asked her what it was. "IT'S THE PLANET'S FAULT, NOT MINE," my mother announced. "That's great!" I responded; "I will do my best to get you an advance and a contract with a publisher. I expect to see a first draft by December." Mom said: "Yes, well, don't hold your breath." We both laughed.

Guilt is disabling and cuts off life. We were not put on the planet to shoulder responsibility for every mishap and hardship that occurs. It's possible for the mind to change even in old age. Old dogs aren't dead yet, after all. Freedom is always just a breath away.

old dog
sniffing the tree where
she'll be buried

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Poet and Buddhist teacher Norman Fischer goes right to the heart of the matter regarding life-and-death during an interview with author Victoria Jean Dimidjian in JOURNEYING EAST. Victoria remarks on a comment Norman made about facing his mortality every day: "You're describing a way of living that acknowledges that death is already here."

"Right," Norman avers. "Because that's what time is, right? Time tells us that there is death every moment. And it's wonderful to live that reality. . . . To me that's the deepest satisfaction, when you are truly aware of death, it's a serious and deep encounter with life."

A serious encounter with life. How many of us encounter life with any seriousness? Life too often feels so difficult, so stressful, so painful, that we turn turn to a myriad of escapes as often as we can. But, to run away from life, because it is hard, is to turn one's back on the treasures of life, as well. I want to leave this world brimming over, not with things but with the love and tenderness, the wholesomeness and beauty that exist in great abundance right alongside the heartaches and sorrows.

not waiting
for a friend's diagnosis to say
I love you

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

I got a sickening call from the husband of someone that I have supervised at work for several years and care a great deal about. His wife, he told me in a voice choked by emotion, was in the intensive care unit of a nearby hospital, due to what doctors hope is no more than a brain infection. This coworker who is dear to me also has cancer, and treatment has been postponed until the brain infection is stabilized.

I got off the telephone and cried and cried. I don't want this dear colleague to die. She is in the prime of her life with three young children under the age of ten.

No amount of writing or meditating on death immunizes one against the upset that invariably floods the heart and soul in the face of a threat to life. Liberation is not synonymous with emotionlessness. On the contrary, the more intimate one becomes with death the more one is stricken by the loss of life . . . or a threat to life. I pray my young colleague recovers her health and her life.

that yellow bird
passing behind the mountain
swings back again
Every so often, usually at night or in the morning, I will lie for a while in a corpse position, legs uncrossed, with my hands resting comfortably on my chest. This is not intended to be a meditation "practice," as I don't believe in practice. I am not preparing for death, but simply lying in this corpse position. My mind empties, my breath flows effortlessly for the most part and my attention turns to the darkness that occurs with having my eyes closed. Nothing is going on. Its' peaceful. That's all, really.

fallen squirrel
how still
the sky

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

I had a dream last night that our childhood dog, Corky, was alive but not well. I threw snow at the living room wall of our house, which slid down behind the sofa. When we went looking for Corky, we found him behind the couch under a blanket. He wasn't moving but his eyes looked sad, almost vacant. I was relieved that he was still alive, because a voice in my head (during the dream) said he had been dead for many years. So, I was both startled and relieved to find him still alive.

But then I woke up and realized that it was only a dream and that, in fact, Corky has been dead for over thirty years.

I am reminded of the story about Chuang Tzu, a Taoist sage, who famously wrote that he wasn't sure if he was Chuang Tzu who dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly that dreamed he was Chuang Tzu.

What is the difference between dreaming and wakefulness? Is there a world of difference or no more than a fine line? Am I Robert dreaming that I am alive, or God dreaming that He is Robert?

after I'm gone
don't call me Buddha*
I will still be Robert

* In the Buddhist tradition, it is believed that when someone dies they become a Buddha, an enlightened being.

Monday, September 6, 2010

In the US today there is a holiday called "Labor Day." I don't know the origins of the holiday, but many Americans (those, at least, not working) spend it shopping for sales. After shopping, people make their way to someone's house who has a barbecue going in the backyard. Hotdogs, hamburgers, and beer--what could be more satisfying than that. (I wouldn't know; I don't drink or eat meat.)

Much of the world is obsessed with work... work provides identity, income, and pride of accomplishment. Of course, work can often be--usually is--stressful in significant ways. Hence, many, if not most, look forward to the weekends, and to holidays such as Labor Day, to relax, unwind, shake off the aggravation of the work week.

All of this seems rather strange from the vantage point of death. Why stress about work when one is going to end up in the grave? Such pent up frustration and tension seem so unnecessary, if not silly, when seen from one's coffin. Few take the long view, however. Most of us get caught up in the moment, which is not to say that one is fully present in the here-and-now. Ironically, being caught up in the moment feels like life-or-death. Perhaps that is the hint we are not heeding: from the vantage point of death this deadline or that coworker conflict which seems to be looming so large is, in actuality, trivial, at least compared to the matter of one's mortality. Knowing this, perhaps the next time I feel caught in a life-or-death matter, I might be able to take a breath--after all, breath is life--and extricate myself from the realm of stress which, by and large, only exists in the mind.

Labor Day
working hard to
stave off death
If you have ever found yourself subtly or not so subtly dissatisfied with life, with how things are, then how have you explained that dissatisfaction to yourself? Have you blamed your upbringing, your personality, the culture you've grown up in?

In the final analysis, I don't think it's any of these. I'm taking a clue from Buddha here. Buddha maintained that life itself is inherently unsatisfying. And, why is that? Because we all die. There is nothing permanent to hold onto. We try and try to latch onto something real and enduring--work, relationship, projects, power, fame--but they don't satisfy. Something goes awry and we end up frustrated, disappointed, angry or hurt. From Buddha's point of view, this is inevitable.

Is there any way to gain freedom from the suffering that goes-with the search for permanent satisfaction or happiness? There is, but it entails coming to terms with one's own death, and this is not something most people want to hear... understandably so. I don't believe the fundamental challenge lies in overcoming our fear of death, but in embracing death as an intimate companion in life. If I am one with death, there is nothing to fear and nothing to avoid. Dissatisfaction ends with taking death into oneself such that the "I" dies into the unknown. This is already too conceptual; and it is not an idea or goal. I hasten to add that death and I are not one; but I'm open to the possibility and that, I suppose, is a start.

cemetery walk
in the shade a moment
my shadow disappears

Sunday, September 5, 2010

I would like to quote hospice worker Rodney Smith again. In an interview with author Victoria Dimidijian in JOURNEYING EAST, Rodney says: "Death always holds the possibility of growth."

Whatever could he mean by this? Doesn't he know that death is the end, the final act? How can there be growth without a future?

Growth doesn't take place in the future; it takes place in the here-and-now. To the extent that one is alive, growth is possible. I prefer learning to growth. We are capable of learning all the way to, and through, our last breath. Zen masters even use their very last breath as an opportunity for teaching, for the transmission of truth, that might spark enlightenment in his or her students. Of course, one doesn't have to be a student of zen to learn from the death of another.

Why would one want be interested in learning on one's deathbed? By that point, hasn't one learned everything there is to learn and, besides, what's the point? After all, life's over; you can't take the learning with you to the grave? This is a very narrow-minded way of thinking. To learn is to love. Love is learning. Love never ends; it continues to reverberate even after the last exhalation. Love requires no motive, no gain. Love acts for itself.

in the far corner
of an empty cave
that sliver of sun
In the back of our minds, there is a secret desire for a good death or dignified death. I've written about this; I suppose that the notion of a good death is proof that one has lived a good life. Is it intended to be the unexcelled performance of a lifetime? I pray not! I am no more interested in performance at the end of my life than I have been throughout my life. Dignity cannot be rooted in outward appearances.

How does one preserve one's dignity in the face of losing control over one's bodily functions? Is a baby less dignified because he or she depends on others to wipe its butt? Babies don't care who wipes their butts. We don't tend to think in terms of dignity when talking about newborns; and why is that? You might be inclined to say, "Well, because they don't have a sense of self yet." Is dignity only possible when selfhood is born?

I think not. Dignity is not dependent upon consciousness, upon selfhood. Dignity is either present by virtue of being, or it is not present at all. This is true of non-humans as well as humans, as far as I am concerned. Where being is regarded as sacred, precious, there is a reverence for life--all life.

I don't confer dignity on another. Dignity is there by virtue of being alive. Even this is not all together accurate, because a dead body is still deserving of dignity. So, dignity must be rooted in something deeper than life only. Indeed, dignity is grounded in the realization that life-and-death, as one, not separate, is sacred. That is not a grammatical error in the last sentence; it is intentional: life-and-death is sacred. I use the singular because they are one, inseparable. Dignity is the affirmation of this holy truth in the one who is dying and those around the one who is dying. Perhaps dignity returns to, or melts into, innocence at the end of life because innocence is the purest form of holiness. Innocence is not dependent on conditions or circumstances nor appearances. It is a pure manifestation of the unnamable.

the way it flutters
to the ground
any leaf
I am impressed with the insights that come when someone combines meditation with hospice work. Listen to what Rodney Smith has realized with regards to time:

With death, we have no more time to procrastinate. No more endless tomorrows. Time comes screeching to a halt, and suddenly the heart opens. Why does the heart open when time isn't there? Thinking in terms of time, living in terms of time is the very blockage of the heart." (emphasis added)

Living in terms of time is the very blockage of the heart. Ah, this is so true! Of course, it is thought that creates the big cage of time. Time didn't create itself; it is the product of the thinking mind, whose sole existence is the establishment of safety or security. We spend our entire lives searching for a refuge, not just from life's hardships, but from life's built-in atomic bomb; that is, death. But, there is no bunker to retreat to; time cannot take us to eternity, at least not by means of thought. So, we only end up living like a refugee, like a fugitive... constantly on the run. It's not until we truly face our mortality, once and for all, that we free ourselves to living. This is why Rodney says, at the end of his interview with author Victoria Jean Dimidjian in JOURNEYING EAST, "When we keep our death close, we remain in touch with how to live." Yes, but this can only be done, unself-consciously, that is, without a self, without a director. And, I probably should add, there is no "how."

trail head
trail's end
that butterfly

Friday, September 3, 2010

Life presents an infinity of distractions. There is so much splendor to behold and unspeakable sorrows to witness. It appears to take an extraordinary amount of effort to see past or through these formidable distractions to the still, shimmering light that is our very nature.

Death, says hospice worker Rodney Smith, burns everything else away at the end of our lives. This is why everyone sees the light: because death clears away the brush to expose the view. "You take everything else away--what else is there" but light?

Ah, light. I have come to depend on sunlight; with each passing year, I seem to need it more and more. The shortening of days, at the end of summer, fills me with sadness... and anger. I want to wave my fist in the air and declare: "Don't take my sunlight from me! Don't shorten the days I love so much." Is this a foreshadowing??

morning light
accompanying me
into the shower

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

I wrote a haiku not long ago that centered around "don't wait." I don't think this is a helpful way of relating to one's life or one's death. Don't wait, for all its good intentions, seems rooted in fear and anxiety.

We have all the time in the world, at least with regards to the present moment. I know that this may sound confusing insofar as the present moment is always fleeting, always departing. But, the present moment is also contained in the Eternal Now, where there is ample time to say hello; goodbye; and I love you.

So, there's no need to scare oneself, to rush, to be hasty. Take a breath, let it out... ah. That's enough. That's just right. Life and death are right here, always waiting. If I wait too, I am synchronized with life and death.

winter bus stop
the bus nears and a few
cherry blossoms fall