Death has a way of grabbing my attention. I can be drifting through life, mindlessly engaged in the mostly meaningless activities of my daily existence, and then…the clear and present reality of the big D—death—jerks me back to where I should always be: living. Real living, not just pretend living.
A few days ago I got a phone call from an elementary and high school classmate, Pam. I’ve talked with Pam just a few times since we graduated from good old Woodlake Union High School, class of 1966.
But as soon as I heard her voice I felt like we were best friends. Like we always had been. Like we always would be. People who are intensely and authentically engaged with life, as Pam is, can make you feel that way.
She started off by telling me about plans that she had heard about for a high school class reunion. I told her that I was interested in the news, yet was more interested in what she was doing now.
“Where do you live?” I asked. “I don’t have a home,” she said. “I’m a contemporary sadhu. For five and a half years I’ve been traveling around the world, Mexico, Central American, India.”
Pam said that her husband died, then their home was destroyed by a hurricane. “I got the message: let go of possessions. I’m into a new phase now. I know that I absolutely know nothing.”
Music to my ears. So refreshing. It was wonderful to be talking to someone who didn’t have life all figured out, who was searching for meaning in the most open fashion, unencumbered either by material things or mental beliefs.
Recently her wanderings returned her to central California, near where she and I spent our youth (Three Rivers). A friend who lives in Visalia had asked her to house sit for two weeks while the family went on vacation in Hawaii. It turned out that the house was right across the street from the home of Brian, a namesake of mine who also was a classmate of ours.
Brian’s wife came over to talk with Pam. She said that Brian was coming home that day from the hospital. He had been treated for a brain tumor. Previously Brian reportedly had been in great health. Happy, productive, a family man.
And then, while backing a horse trailer out of their driveway, he hit a tree. Brian’s wife asked, “What happened?” He said, “I don’t know. Something blanked out in my mind.”
Just a few months later Brian was spending his last day on Earth at home, talking to Pam. He died the day he got out of the hospital. Pam told me, “Everything is a gift.” Amen to that. Her being there in Visalia at that moment was an amazing coincidence.
That word, “coincidence,” doesn’t do justice to this story. As I was listening to Pam talk about Brian’s final hours, I had the strongest feeling that life offers us up these glimpses of what I can only call something more not for a reason, but simply as a gift. Briefly a crack appears in the cosmic egg and we get a peek into what lies beneath the shell of appearances.
I don’t know what it is. Neither does Pam. Maybe Brian does now. I hope so.
All I know is that life is meant to be lived. I’ve always known that, but I often forget it. I forget that each of us—me, you, Pam, Brian—lives on the edge of Mystery. That edge is encountered in many fashions, many ways, many guises.
Death is Mystery’s most dramatic appearance. Death scares us. Death fascinates us. Death attracts us. Death repels us. The faces of death are as various as our understandings of life. For me, death is a mystery, just as life is a mystery.
The day I talked with Pam I worked in our yard, mowing, fertilizing, edging. Usually I do all this robotically, looking forward to being done with these unwelcome chores so I can move on to doing something else, at which point I’ll be thinking about how nice it will be to… And so on.
Pam’s story about Brian had an effect on me. Maybe this was because he shared my name; he was the same age as me; he was healthy before the brain tumor made its appearance, just as I am. I don’t know the reason why I worked differently that afternoon. I’ll just accept it as a gift.
I realized that the moments of the mowing, the fertilizing, the edging—they were never going to come again. Who knows, maybe no earthly moment was going to come again. I could fall dead from a heart attack, or whatever, in an instant.
There are no guarantees that come attached to this garment of life that I’m temporarily wearing. My body can fall apart at any moment and I’ve got no recourse. Complaints to the warranty department will go unheard: “I thought this vehicle of the spirit was good to go for at least eighty years! What gives?!”
Well, what gives is my conceptions about life. What stays is reality, plain and simple. And that’s the place I should be staying in all the time: reality, here and now.
That place is where I am and who I am. Yet much of the time—no, most of the time—I allow myself to be dragged away into a facsimile of reality, an imitation of life that is fabricated from images: thoughts, imaginings, conceptions, anticipations, desires, what-ifs.
Too often I borrow my life from others because I’m too lazy or too fearful to live a life that is truly my own. Just before Pam called I had been reading a book about the Taoist sage, Lieh-Tzu. It advises, “In our short time here, we should listen to our own voices and follow our own hearts. Why not be free and live your own life?”
I’ll share the entire short chapter from which that excerpt was taken as a continuation to this post. It’s a gift: from Lieh-Tzu, from the book’s author (Eva Wong), from me, from the cosmos.
Pam is right. Everything is a gift. Life doesn’t need to be unwrapped, figured out, deciphered, analyzed to death. The gifts are right at hand. We just need to recognize them for what they are.
“Life—temporarily staying in the world;
(from Lieh-Tzu: A Taoist Guide to Practical Living, by Eva Wong)
“If you live to be a hundred, it is considered a long life. However, only one in a thousand persons is that lucky. But if we take a person who has lived a hundred years and look at the time he has spent in his life, we will realize that a hundred years is not a long life. Out of these years, childhood and old age take up at least half the time. In addition, half the day he is asleep. Not to mention the hours during the day that he has idled away. What does that leave him? Moreover, if you take out the times when he is ill, sad, confused, and not feeling good, there isn’t much time left that he can enjoy or be free.
“Some people think they can find satisfaction in good food, fine clothes, lively music, and sexual pleasure. However, when they have all these things, they are not satisfied. They realize happiness is not simply having their material needs met. Thus, society has set up a system of rewards that go beyond material goods. These include titles, social recognition, status, and political power, all wrapped up in a package called self-fulfillment.
“Attracted by these prizes and goaded on by social pressures, people spend their short lives tiring body and mind to chase after these goals. Perhaps this gives them the feeling that they have achieved something in their lives, but in reality they have sacrificed a lot in life. They can no longer see, hear, act, feel, or think from their hearts. Everything they do is dictated by whether it can get them social gains. In the end, they’ve spent their lives following other people’s demands and never lived a life of their own. How different is this from the life of a slave or a prisoner?
“The ancients understood that life is only a temporary sojourn in this world, and death a temporary departure. In our short time here, we should listen to our own voices and follow our own hearts. Why not be free and live your own life? Why follow other people’s rules and live to please others? When something enjoyable comes your way, you should enjoy it fully. Don’t be imprisoned by name or title, for social conventions can lead you away from the natural order of things. It doesn’t matter whether you will be remembered in generations ahead, because you will not be there to see it.
“Why spend your life letting other people manipulate you just to get a name and reputation? Why not let your life be guided by your own heart and live without the burdens of fame and recognition?”