Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Ravages of Time

There is an album titled The Ravages of Time by the British progressive metal band Threshold, and there is a manga comic series titled The Ravages of Time by a Hong Kong artist. It describes the three kingdoms period of Chinese history after the Han dynasty collapsed 2000 years ago.

Neither of those ravages of time is what I am thinking of right now. My contemplation is much closer to home. Yesterday in the parking lot of a shopping center (which is to my mind a garish place to meet a mythic presence, but we cannot always meet in sylvan glens, apparently) I saw a woman I've loved and admired for over 30 years. She's a profoundly gifted astrologer. I've always thought of her as a liminal figure, someone who moves easily between the seen and the invisible worlds.

When I first met her she cut a romantic figure, wafting through the streets of our little town swathed in long cloaks and capes. With her pale skin, wildly curly red hair, slender body, and a potent gift for poetic speech, she conjured a sense of wonder in me. I brought this up to her during a reading she gave me several years ago. "Oh, my high priestess phase," she laughed, dismissing it with a wave of her hand. We were all beautiful then, though some of us may not have realized it. Beautiful with the freshness and vitality of youth.

Yesterday I met her in the parking lot. There she was, a slight older woman with a little beige hat and quiet colored clothes, pushing a shopping cart. At first I did not recognize her; she had changed in the months since I had last seen her. She was moving slowly. There was a cane in the shopping cart.

I was happy to see her. I walked up and greeted her warmly. Being a rather direct person, I asked her about the cane after our introductory remarks. She gave me the news-- she has a hereditary neurological disease that progresses slowly. I found myself suddenly falling out of time somehow with this information, and I registered the understanding that this kind of news is something I will be hearing a lot more of regarding those I love, including myself.

"I don't intend to become a person of interest to the medical community," she told me with a smile. And so we began to speak of illness and letting go. "So many surgeries or medical treatments give you a year or two more, but is that what we are supposed to do at this point, just hang onto the body? As a Buddhist, isn't it about letting go?"

Yes. I agreed with her. It is about letting go-- at this stage of life especially. But that didn't ease the sinking feeling that I had. I love her. I don't want her to suffer. Isn't that one of the most painful aspects of the earthly dimension? To me, it is.

I told her so. How I wished she did not have to go through this. But she gracefully sidestepped my attempt, which we both knew was futile. It was clear that she embraces her illness with acceptance. I felt very sad, yet her attitude inspired me. Of course acceptance is the attitude I wish to have myself.

So there we were, two old Buddhists talking about illness and dying in the parking lot. Nothing new about that, I can tell you after 30 plus years as a Buddhist. Especially the death part. Buddhists talk about death routinely, even when they are young. Buddhists practice to prepare for dying, which I'll save for another story.

Something happened during the time I studied with Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche in Berkeley in the 70s. Many things happened, but this one thing in particular affected me deeply. Several houses up from Tarthang Tulku's, the father of a neighboring family had died with a horrible expression on his face. His body was contorted. Soon after his death, his daughters came to ask Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche if there was anything he could do to help. They couldn't stand to see their father like that. They weren't Buddhists, but maybe they thought that a Tibetan lama might know something mystically efficacious. Which it turned out was true.

Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche gave them a metal disc with prayers inscribed on it. He told them to place the disc on their father's heart and to repeat a mantra. I don't know which mantra it was. Within a couple of hours, the man's body had relaxed; his face assumed a peaceful expression. His daughters were very happy. I was very happy, too. I still feel happy when I think of it. It was one of the experiences that led me to become a Buddhist.

So here at the end of summer as the days shorten I contemplate the ravages of time, the piercing qualities of love and loss, the transitory nature of this human life. This is part of the work of age.
Photo: Ruins of an ancient Roman column--courtesy www.cepolina.com

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