Sunday, July 10, 2022

 

                                                           Meadow Flowers by Minni Herzing

 

Summer Reflections

 

Small clouds of insects darting in the sun, the sound of bees in the flowering trees, bees in the fragrant lavender that blooms all over town. The cool water of nearby creeks. Wonderful bird songs. Summer. A beautiful season. I am 81, and I’ve experienced many summers. Of course, this one could be the last. Or not.

 

I was lying on the loveseat looking out at the sky, and I was recalling three deaths that occurred during my childhood. Each of them resonated in me for years. Perhaps you had similar experiences when you were young. I wonder if you did.

 

My Uncle Steve was my godfather and I loved him more than any of my other relatives. But our time together was short; he died when I was 5 or 6. When my parents told me about his death, they seemed deeply uncomfortable, as if they were unsure of their footing. It felt as if we had suddenly become lost in the midst of a deep fog. What was wrong? Was it so bad or dangerous? Wasn’t he still nearby even if he was dead? I wanted to see my dear Uncle Steve again, to say goodbye. I begged my parents to take me to see him. They looked down, looked away, and told me no, that was not possible. I felt very alone. I don’t know what they felt. They believed that death was just too much for a child to view or navigate. Children had to be shielded from it. So, I endured my loss in a lonely way, feeling misunderstood and terribly deprived. Although I could not have articulated it then, it seemed wrong to keep me from saying goodbye, wrong to prevent me from expressing my grief near his body. Of course, I was not allowed to attend his funeral.

 

There was a tragedy in our neighborhood a few years later. Larry, a little boy who lived down the street, was hit by a car and died. I was playing in his backyard with several other children when it happened. Before being pushed away and ordered back to my house, I realized that my mother was the driver. Standing near her car, she sobbed hysterically. She was driving very slowly. Larry had run right out in front of the car. Of course, we were not allowed to see Larry.  Later, I heard my parents talking. Larry’s parents were angry at my mother. Because of her, Larry was dead. They were acting as if she had done it purposely. I was stunned by Larry’s death. I had been playing with him moments before. But my mother’s torment is what I most remember.

 

Our house was closed in. The shades were pulled; the curtains shut. The priest visited every day. Crying continuously and praying her rosary, my mother stayed in bed in her dark room. The smell of the frankincense the priest offered filled the whole house. It was hard to bear my mother’s suffering. I wondered if light would ever enter our house again, if she would ever smile or laugh or if she would always have the stark, afflicted visage she showed us then. I was frightened. Eventually, the priest stopped visiting. My mother grimly, wearily rose up out of her bed. We raised the shades and opened the curtains. It slowly lightened. But it was grayish for a long time.

 

Then there was The Beauty Lady, who had a place of honor with the kids in our neighborhood. She was a petite woman who wore a jaunty hat, and carried her purse just so. She was not a classic beauty. The name we gave her was a tribute to her spirit. We loved greeting her as she walked down the street. She seemed genuinely interested in us children, smiling and paying attention to us in a way that few other adults did. It made us feel happy. The Beauty Lady had no children of her own. She lived with her husband in a little house at the end of the street.

 

One day, my friend Shirley gave me some awful news. She told me that The Beauty Lady was dead and that her body was lying in a coffin in her living room, awaiting burial. Of course, we quickly determined to go up to her house and say goodbye. We made our way up the woodsy driveway at the end of the block. Her husband, looking very sad indeed, opened the door and invited us in. Nobody else was there. There she was, The Beauty Lady, looking peaceful and still. Shirley and I cried as we sat by her body. Her husband sat quietly, tears streaming down his face. How meaningful and sacred that moment was to me. Having the opportunity to say goodbye to The Beauty Lady changed me. I had been invited in and given the time to be with her.

 

I never said anything about our visit to my parents. I had a different perspective than they did, it seemed. 

 

Thursday, February 3, 2022


Writing My Eulogy in 2021

 

I was a writer, but just because you’re a writer doesn’t mean it’s easy to write your own eulogy. Actually, I wondered whether writing my eulogy was a last-gasp grasp at the illusory self.

 

And what about all the voices within—which one should I use? That sardonic, ironic, caustic one? The tender, nostalgic, melancholy one? The cheerful one that’s intent on inspiring? Voices and sub personalities-- another element to contemplate. I share this information in case you are ever tempted to write your own eulogy.

 

A eulogy is supposed to honor and extol the person’s special qualities, accomplishments, and achievements. Of course, I had special qualities, and I hoped that everybody would notice them. Is this something to celebrate?  I am done tooting my own horn. I say this with a big smile and a blast of white light for good measure.

 

I shared my dreams, adventures, epiphanies, betrayals, and delights with many beings, including whales, frogs, coyotes, birds, parents, children, friends, enemies, strangers, lovers, and husbands. I wrote about some of my life experience in poetry and memoir. I wrote a few books. I sang some songs. I liked to lean into the timeless.

 

The most fortunate thing that happened to me was this: in my 30s, by some wonderful magic, I began to meet amazing Tibetan masters. They were not ordinary people in any way. They embodied such depth. I began receiving empowerments and teachings. I began a practice to purify my karmic obstacles. I learned about returning to original purity.

 

It stirs me to say even a few words about the grandeur and scope of these teachers -- the Karmapa and Dudjom Rinpoche, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, Yangthang Rinpoche, Chagdud Rinpoche and others. Dear Sister Palmo, my refuge lama. And beloved Gyatrul Rinpoche, who became my guide for the rest of my life--his humor and playfulness a doorway into vast stillness and radiance. I was fortunate to be close to him. To practice being at one with his vast mind. He was the love of my life. I bow down. I bow down. I bow down.

 

To conclude, I beg you to forgive me for anything I did that hurt you-- and thank you for everything. Onward!

Sunday, October 10, 2021

 

A Brief Meeting

 


The opera was about to begin but I didn't know where my seat was located. I held out my ticket to the white-haired usher who stood nearby and said "Excuse me sir, but can you...." But he turned away from me, leaning heavily against the big door that led into the opera house. Putting my ticket in my pocket, I reached out to touch his arm. 

 

"Are you okay?" I asked. When he turned toward me and began to fall I saw that his eyes were wonderfully blue. He began to fall towards me without a word, his face flushed, his hair pure white. Our eyes met. It was just a momentary glance. I want to say that he fell into my arms. I surely intended to catch him in my arms, but as he came closer, moving as slowly as a cloud, I missed him somehow. It was as if he passed through my arms like water. Slowly he fell and his body hit the floor, crumpling down onto the carpet of the opera house lobby. 

 

He was still, as boulders are when they have come to rest at the bottom of a hill. I gently turned him onto his back. His wonderful blue eyes gazed up into space. He was not in the ordinary world, whatever the ordinary world meant to him all the other moments of his life. He was elsewhere in some more expanded reality. He looked innocent as a baby and entirely as vulnerable. And when I looked down at him, he was not simply a dignified, corpulent older man in a dark gray suit who had fallen suddenly to the floor. 

 

He was very beautiful. Perhaps it was his absorption that made him so beautiful. All of his customary faces and attitudes, whatever they might have been, had dissolved and he was simply there. It occurred to me that he might be dying. In fact, I thought he was dying. Perhaps I was being arrogant to think I knew the moment of his death. I wasn't a doctor. Yet it appeared to me that he had had a heart attack and was dying. When I looked into his eyes he seemed as if he was already moving beyond his body, out into the blue reaches of the sky where everything was the color of his beautiful eyes.

 

More than anything, I wanted to comfort and reassure him. I took his white haired head into my hands and held it at the crown. I stroked his face. "It's all right. It's all right," I murmured softly to him. While I stroked him and spoke these words I communicated with him. For he and I were linked in some place where ordinary time had given way to the boundless reaches of the timeless. I held his head, stroked his beautiful face and looked into his blue eyes as they gazed far beyond our mortal meeting.

 

And I thought to myself, what would I wish for if I had fallen as he had, in a public place far from my family, if I were ill or dying as I thought he might be at that moment? I imagined myself in his place, my apparently secure everyday reality suddenly swept away. What would I want then? I would wish for warmth, love, and calm. I would wish for someone to help me align myself with my spiritual essence. So I tried to give him those things with my hands and my intention.

 

It never occurred to me to be anything other than calm. Someone else would call the ambulance. Someone else might attempt to revive him. If it was his time to die, then he could die safely here. He could send his consciousness out into the light through the top of his head. There where my fingers touched him, he could send it out. That's what I focused on. Meanwhile, a man rushed up and began to shout excitedly. " Help! Help! Call the ambulance! He needs to breathe! Get this loosened! His neck is constricted! Loosen his tie! His shirt!" I said nothing while he frantically tried to unbutton the top shirt button and to loosen the necktie. The white-haired man was still. and his stillness aroused frenzy in the man who came to help. I think it reminded him of the stillness that would one day overcome him, too. "God damn it, God damn it! I can't do this," he moaned and shouted as he worked at the buttons and tie. Then a woman in a cobalt blue dress arrived. She began trying to resuscitate the white-haired gentleman, pushing mightily on his great chest and breathing into his mouth. The frantic man finally succeeded in unbuttoning the top button and loosening the tie. Then with frustration and anger, he wildly pulled the white-haired man's entire shirt open, cursing and shouting.

 

If I were dying, I would wish for someone much more calm. "Whether this man is living or dying, you are not helping him with all your shouting," I told the shouter firmly. He subsided, shocked. Another man arrived, saying that he was a doctor. He and the woman in the bright blue dress took turns trying to revive the fallen man. It seemed as if time trailed out to the ends of the universe. Pressing, releasing, breathing into the mouth over and over, and yet the fallen man exhaled only two great breaths under their mighty efforts. His mouth turned dark. His ears grew purplish red. The woman stuck her fingers way into his mouth to see if she could unclog his breathing. Still, his eyes gazed up innocently into space. I continued to hold his head and to stroke his face. They could not find a pulse. 

 

The ambulance came. The emergency crew rushed up the stairs with their equipment and stretcher. Silently, I told the man that I was letting go of his head, but that I would continue to visualize him as a being of light. I would continue to visualize his consciousness exiting from the top of his head. I would continue to be connected to his passage. I walked to my seat in the opera house. My hands remained hot for hours. Sitting quietly as the music washed through me, I visualized holding the head of the white-haired man, and gave thanks for our brief encounter.

 

 

 

Monday, September 28, 2020

Three Years Later, Hello Again

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Forty years ago, I orchestrated a spring equinox gathering in a field in Ashland. The event was quite glorious, as this photograph shows. We did a lot of singing, drumming and dancing in those days. Creating our special hippie brand of tribal ritual.  A couple of weeks ago I was thinking of that land. Wasn’t it in the path of the fires that just swept through? I decided to take a ride to see what was what. Indeed, all the houses in the area had been destroyed. But the house on that land where we gathered so long ago, that house was standing. There was Giuseppi by the driveway building a shed for his tractor, because the shed had burned down. “We decided not to evacuate. We stayed to fight the fire,” he told me. I was very glad to see that their house was still standing, amidst the terrible ravages of that fire, which left thousands of people without homes. It's brave to stay to fight a fire, seems to me.

Thousands of people without homes. Many of them Latinos or elders, whose mobile homes were not insured. I didn’t have to evacuate. My apartment building was not in the path of the fire. But like many others in our community, I have been deeply unsettled by the fires.

The moon is already up. I can see it from where I am sitting. It will be full in a few days.  In the 17th century Japanese poet and samurai Mizuta Masahide wrote a haiku about the moon that remains famous among those who love haiku. 

"Barn's burnt down

now I can see the moon."

I doubt that anyone who lost their home in the recent fires would appreciate his relaxed perspective.

When the full moon arrives each month, I miss seeing it out in the Colestin Valley after gathering with my Buddhist sangha at the Tashi Choling temple for the full moon puja. No gatherings at Tashi Choling. It’s autumn and we are seven months into a global pandemic. Now we do pujas on Zoom. 

 

My brother Phil died a month ago, and before the cremation, I viewed his body at the funeral home on Zoom. Which of course was strange. I spoke with his four daughters, his partner, and his estranged wife on Zoom. Yes, my younger brother, a loveable and funny personage, has died.

 

Loss. Loss and isolation. This seems to have brought me back to this blog after three years hiatus. I will leave it at that for now, unvarnished and not nicely arranged. 

 

Today, high winds and very dry conditions. Praying for rain. Seriously. “This is the time and the record of the time,” as Laurie Anderson wrote in a song long ago. Wishing you well. Wishing you very well.

 

 




 


 




 

 


 





Saturday, April 1, 2017

These Blessed Days


 Hi friends, I just published a newsletter and you can access it at:


http://eepurl.com/cJf7ib

I am probably going to use that vehicle and not this blog, so hope you will sign up for the newsletter if you have not already done so.

Happy spring!

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Practising the Art of Letting Go of the Ego

"Letting go of the ego." That's one of the main developmental tasks of aging defined by Carl Jung, who called the later years the afternoon of life, quite a pleasant image, calling up the pleasure of walking along a beautiful path. Which we are.

I have been working on letting go of the ego since I became a Buddhist in my mid-30s. After 40 years I wish I could brag about my progress. But if I were bragging about how egoless I have managed to become.... well let's face it, that would be a tad egotistical.


It is a work in process. I still have not succeeded in transforming all that lead into gold. Understated, but true. I will spare you the gory details. I'm sure you have your own to contend with.

"Altruism is innate, but it's not instinctual. Everybody's wired for it, but a switch has to be flipped," says author David Rakoff.
 
Getting older does help with flipping that switch. One is aware that these are the final years of life. That recognition hopefully puts some wind in the sails.

The inner work that is a natural part aging sails us into waters that we could never have navigated earlier in life. We just were not experienced enough. Even in later life navigating these waters is challenging. Facing death, life review, healing old wounds, letting go of the ego--these are profound areas of maturation and self-understanding.

That's why later life is a real treasure chest for the alchemist who is willing to spend time in the laboratory refining lead into gold. It's natural to be in that laboratory as we age. Much more natural than the hyper-active busyness that some older adults ascribe to as a way of filling every inch of space possible while avoiding the inner life.

I love this quote from the famous author and spiritual leader Ram Dass who tells us, "I didn't have to be somebody..."And that from a person who has been a highly visible public figure for many years. How he came to not having to be somebody is his unique journey, one interesting to read about. It's the same for each of us. We all have our own path.

I notice that there is a great deal of freedom in not having to be somebody. Loosening up the bonds of attachment to identity, performance orientation, station in life. It's one positive aspect of being less visible, stepping back out of the action a bit, spending more time with the inner life.

I am weary of heroism. I am tired of doing. I am tired of great projects and frenzied efforts.  I have left the busy land of the middle-aged for a realm of deep inner stillness, quiet and sacred being." --John Robinson

Left to right Jeannie, Laurie and me at Tashi Choling
This quote resonates, because after decades of mighty Type A and semi-reformed Type A ambitions, I have been surprised at what it feels like to drop that kind of focus and perspective. It is different. I am another person really. Not having to be somebody, not having to accomplish something big to save the world, or some part of it. A different vantage point, something more panoramic.

Being more self-aware and quiet--letting go of heroic attitudes and ambitious great projects-- doesn't automatically mean disengaging from positive activity and engagement.

The process of letting go of the ego naturally propels older adults into more altruistic ways of thinking and being. We find ourselves asking ourselves, What is the most meaningful way for me to contribute now?  With a less constricted sense of self, freed up from the confines of having to be somebody, and knowing time is short, some older people can be great activists, philosophers and mentors.

I'm not saying it's easy, this business of self-transformation, letting go, and opening up in ways never dreamed of before. Letting go of the ego. I am grateful that I have a good strong ego to wrassle with. Seriously. But being ruled by the ego is too limited and limiting. Such self-fixation is a constricted version of who I really am, or could be as I go deeper.

So here I am, at the tail end of summer, navigating my boat in these beautiful waters. Hope this finds you well and happy.

P.S. Quotes from Ram Dass and John Robinson are from the Fierce with Age Digest, which you can subscribe to by clicking the link above. I look forward to receiving it, because it contains such thoughtful content about aging. You may enjoy it too.






Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Joy of Receiving Letters


Rogue Valley Road, photo by Larry Turner

What a wonderful surprise it was to receive so many letters via email in response to my last post from the summer solstice, in which I wondered who was reading my blog, and what readers were engaged in as they aged. 

Some folks wrote short messages, but a handful sent longer, thoughtful and descriptive communications that one could rightfully think of as bona fide letters. Now letters in this day and age are all too scarce, and I was touched and delighted to be gifted with a whole bouquet of them via email. I found it very meaningful to learn more about what others are doing, too. I want to share excerpts from some of the letters here, because I imagine you will also find them rather fascinating. 

Oh, but before starting that, I want to acknowledge these beautiful photos from a local photographer named Larry Turner. I love his work.  

Waldport, Oregon, photo by Larry Turner
I had had some contact with several of the folks that wrote. I met one of them some years ago through an international online community of older women. 

She keeps bees and some goats at her farm. We have never met in person, but we have had some nice talks over the years. 

In her letter, she talked about how good it felt to mentor another woman who wanted to learn about beekeeping. She also talked about the inner work of harvesting one's life and sent a couple of excerpts from the book From Aging to Sage-ing by Rabbi Zalman Schachter, which relate to that. Here they are:



"Up to now, we have gone shopping in all the world's markets, gathering the ingredients for a cake. To become an elder, we must stop rushing madly about, learn to get quiet, mix all the ingredients together meditatively, bake the cake, and allow it to rise in its own time. In this way, elder hood represents the crowning achievement of life."


"When as older adults we identify obsessively with our work role or with a youthful appearance, we find ourselves in conflict. The deep psyche wants us to harvest our lives, while our surface self keeps us obsessed with staying in the saddle."  

Lavender in bloom, photo by Larry Turner
Yes, harvesting--an important aspect of aging....

Another person shared the story of giving up her law practice at 57 and taking off in an RV, then resettling for 7 years in southern California before returning to the place she realized was home. 

This writer said that the journey and the return "has also left me with an enduring sense of gratitude for that realization, and for somehow miraculously landing on my feet, once I moved back here." 

I received a letter from an old friend who now lives across the ocean. He said,

"The awareness in my aging is that I should not carry things with me merely because they are not complete.  It is like books: people feel bad because they have not completed a "read" and that somehow the money spent on the book is wasted without the completeness.  Actually, often what was purchased was an opportunity to find an awareness of One Thing.  We would all like to feel that our life is One Thing Complete, and then spend some time enjoying the feeling.  That ain't gonna happen is all I can say.  The only real Completeness is when we meld back into the Field of Peace."

One writer said that she was enjoying painting, and two others said that they were writing about their lives. One wrote: "I am 68, an entrepreneur, artist (public art,sculpture) all of which doesn't  seem important anymore. I am happy to be alive and do whatever calls to me."

Some of the people who wrote told me that they felt that I was a kindred spirit, that they enjoyed my positive aging perspective or my willingness to take risks. Thanks for the feedback, and the friendship, too. I have had the real pleasure of hearing about your lives and adventures. I am so happy to have been gifted with these messages. 

Okay, are you ready for the 4th of July?  Sometimes I do think about the kind of holidays I would invent, given the opportunity. Wouldn't that be fun? Enjoy your bees, goats, friends, families, fruits, dances, forests, waters, beaches, dirt roads, parades, music, libations, loud fireworks, aero flyovers etc. Peace and love.