Siddhartha

I have read and listened to the story of Buddha’s life many times but I heard it today in a new way. The part that caught my attention was at the very beginning when his father, the King, shields him from seeing any of the sadness or tragedy of life. When Siddhartha, as he was then called, escapes the palace and encounters for the first time illness, old age and death he is profoundly moved and troubled. Ultimately it is this experience that sets him on his journey.

When I listened to this story before I was always rather skeptical. How could anyone not know about illness, old age and death? How could anyone be so sheltered as to be unaware of these most basic processes of life? But today the story sounded more plausible to me.

How many of us actually admit the reality of aging, illness and death? Do we not put our trust in the powers of medical science to postpone the appearance, if not eliminate the existence of, these predators? Do we not believe that in a few years there will be a cure for cancer, for heart disease, for all of the many debilitating and fatal diseases from which we now suffer? Isn’t it just a matter of time before there is a pill, a vaccine, a transplant, a stem cell that will extend our lives far into the future – if not indefinitely. Do we not believe that good diet, exercise and skilled surgery can capture and maintain the beauty of youth? Are we not gods in the making?

How many of us can look on our aging bodies without dismay, perhaps sorrow, perhaps fear? How many of us can embrace the softness of age and see within its frailty something to be honored rather than spurned? How many of us can bear illness with dignity and acceptance rather than rail against the present and fear the future? How many of us visit the sick and dying? How many have sat vigil at the deathbed of another and closed the eyes of the departed? Do we put our cemeteries in our towns or banish them to the unseen perimeters?

We have a culture that fears illness, old age and death. In reality, we are in the same situation of Siddhartha. If we saw the truth of life, its brevity, its poignancy, its tragic beauty, we certainly would live differently. How could we not? Wouldn’t this realization help us to be gentler with each other? Wouldn’t we spend more time with our children and loved ones? Take more walks, watch more sunsets, hold more hands, pet more animals? Wouldn’t we spend our time experiencing life rather than playing in virtual realities? Wouldn’t we be kinder to ourselves and others?

So the story of Buddha is not as foreign and exotic as I have always thought. We are all asleep as he was; all sheltered by our parental culture from acknowledging our precarious and precious existence. Can we wake up to our own mortality? Can we explore the possibility that this life is limited but there may be more? Can we live with the deep questions rather than subsist on shallow answers?

Traveling #4

“The aim of a dervish was to become a ‘dead man walking’: one whose body stays alive on the earth yet whose soul is already in Heaven… towards the end of his journey, the dervish become the Way not the wayfarer, i.e. a place over which something is passing, not a traveler following his own free will.”

Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines

All of life is a journey but our final destination is not one that we have yet learned to embrace. In fact, although we may all like to change the destination, the most we can do is postpone the arrival. And because we try to avoid the end, we may fear the end too much and so miss the journey.

Perhaps in our journeying, we need to enjoy the scenery along the way a little more. Pull over for the lookout vistas. Take a break at the rest stops now and then and refresh our spirits. Check our maps against the road signs we pass. Kick the tires when we fill up with gas.

And just because our final destination has already been determined is no reason we can’t use our imagination to play some games in the car. Any trip, if not taken to be alone, should be shared with someone you love.

A trip that I will always remember with love was taken in 1988 over Easter weekend. My son Rob was paying his way through college working way too hard in the meat department at the local grocery store; Jason was a junior in high school working at McDonald’s. I looked at them one day and thought there’s still so much I want to do with them and I haven’t, and now it’s almost too late.

So, against their protests – for they had things to do and places to go and people to see – I piled them into the car the next day and we took off to see the Grand Canyon. We drove all day and made Flagstaff by night. We ate big steaks and drank beer and slept in a motel. We saw the Grand Canyon, felt the vibes at Sedona, drove through the little mining town of Jerome, and finally headed points southwest back home. I don’t remember much of what we saw so it’s a good thing we took some pictures. What I do remember is driving down the highway laughing and singing with my boys like we did when we were all little and driving to Viriginia.

You see, I knew it was the last trip we were ever going take together so I opened up all my skin, so to speak, and tried to soak everything in so that some day, like now, I could remember how it felt and what they looked like and the sound of their laughter. For those days are past and the people we were then are gone with them.

So, when you plan a trip, whether it’s a trip across the country or across a lifetime, always go with someone you love.

“Traveling is not just seeing the new; it is also leaving behind. Not just opening doors; also closing them behind you, never to return. But the place you have left forever is always there for you to see whenever you shut your eyes.”

Jan Myrdal, The Silk Road

Traveling #3

“What profit is there in crossing the sea and in going from one city to another?

If you would escape your troubles, you need not another place, but another personality….”

Seneca

What strange currents are there running through our lives that bring us together and part us; what psychic magnetism draws those who have something to exchange. Is it because in traveling we have put aside some of our persona and perhaps allow more of ourselves to shine through?  Is it because traveling gives us an opportunity to be most ourselves?

We are as anonymous as we want to be on the road and with this anonymity comes freedom, for we are released from our cultural or familial identities. When we have no expectations to fulfill, we can re-create ourselves anew each day. It is the carrying of our personal histories into relationships that stagnate and ultimately doom them to repetitious boredom. After a while we play the roles so much we become the roles and whoever we may be disappears.

We take a trip to “get away,” but it is not to get away from an environment or a job, it is to get away from the person we have been pretending we are. That is why a vacation can be so relaxing; we’re not using up all of our energy playing roles. When we take off for the mountains, we leave behind our role as an accountant or an artist or a father or a husband and become … whoever we wish.

If we play our cards right and have done a good job being a traveler, we come back from our vacations new or at least renewed. Just like Moses coming down from the Mountain- if it was a good trip, you bring back a new agenda.

Traveling #2

“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”

Robert Lewis Stevenson

I never thought of Stevenson as a dharma bum but traveling is more than a state of motion, it is also a state of mind. A road trip lets your mind unravel like an old sweater that can be reknit again in a new design. There’s just you and the car and the road stretching ahead. I have always found it difficult to relax on a trip. I think by nature I am destination-oriented – a classic type A personality. But the secret of traveling is to forget about your destination and get lost in the motion of the trip.

After the first few hours, my body finds the least uncomfortable position and my mind is free to wander. This is the time I think about the people I will be visiting and remembering the times we’ve shared before; the time to watch eagles and hawks spiraling over freeways and wonder if they hate us for invading their land; the time to see thunderclouds in the distance and watch spikes of lightning drive into the ground; the time to discover that how I felt when I was 25 or 35 or 45 is exactly how I feel right now; the time to wonder where it is I am going and if it matters.

All traveling is a voyage of self-discovery – if only by contrast. Once we leave the comfort of our own environments, we must be a little more alert and aware, for who knows what rules apply in this new domain, what game is in the making, what side is carrying the ball. It is in the South I realize how fast I talk and move; it is in the Midwest where I feel the most Bohemian; New Mexico and Utah make me feel over-civilized. It is by discovering what I am not, that I sometimes learn who I am – a subtraction process- not this, not that.

Why is it that we travel – for a change of place and pace; to meet new people and see new things; to be revitalized and restored; to be changed and transformed? What ever it is we most desire, even unconsciously, becomes symbolized in the trip and by reaching our journey’s end we expect to be a different person.

What would any journey be without the chance meeting with the Stranger who comes in two guises: the Listener and the Teacher.

On the road I am the hero of my own story. I can include or leave out as much as I want, change the characters and their roles, play the role of the victim or the victor. My secrets are safe on the road and strangely enough it is there that I am most likely to tell them. It is the Stranger on the train to whom I pore out my life story in complete safety for our paths will never cross again.

It is the Listener’s opinion I ask for and listen to when I talk about the guy at work who is gunning for my job, that little affair I didn’t mean to have, the secret monkey on my back I carry from midnight to midnight. It is the Stranger as Listener who takes the role of Sibyl or priest, and by hearing the confession of my little life grants me absolution.

If I am in a receptive frame of mind, instead of telling the story of my life, I may chose to be the audience for an Other’s. It is the Stranger as Teacher sitting on a rickety bar stool somewhere in a mountain mining town telling how when the black lung hits, you don’t feel it in your lungs at first but in your back, which he then demonstrates by a blow between my shoulder blades. From that moment on whenever a bad chest cold takes me, it is the sound of his voice and the blow of his hand that reminds me that mortality stalks us all.

It is the Teaching Stranger who buttonholes me while I browse through a bookstore and announces that people have lost their capacity for playfulness and then rambles on about lost children whose laughter is no longer a part of her world.

Are we Teacher or Stranger? Are we traveling to lose or find ourselves?

Traveling #1

“Henceforth, I ask not good fortune, I myself am good fortune,

Henceforth, I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,

Done with indoor complaints, librarians, querulous criticisms,

Strong and content I travel the open road.”

Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road

 

Back in the early 1970’s, I did a lot of driving around. I was reading Alan Watts and Suzuki and Krishnamurti. It was a period of thinking and evaluating, rejecting old ways of thought and searching for the miraculous. I think of those times as my Kerouac years.

In those days my kids were little and every summer there would be the annual pilgrimage to Virginia where they would spend some time bonding with their father’s family. It was a ten hour drive each way and I would sometimes see my ex-husband. The long drive home over the Pennsylvania mountains would be partly spent in review and regrets of what would never be while the boys slept in the back seat.

Then, for a year or two there was a boyfriend named Dan who lived a couple hours away and the weekends were spent going to and fro. Dan was a surveyor for the highways and in love with long distances. We used to drive around the little towns of western Pennsylvania and drop in on Elks Clubs, Moose Clubs, the Vets or just about any place that would serve drinks on a Sunday. We would make up names and histories and pretend we were somebody else for a while – which we were.

When we finally broke up, I took my first trip alone. I packed my dog Bo into the car and for the next five days drove through New England crying over my lost love. That seemed to let the proverbial cat out of the bag and after that I had no qualms about travelling alone.

One of my classic memories was driving from Pennsylvania to California in my little red ‘76 Chevette. I was moving to California where the sun always shines and life was good. This is a marked contrast to Pennsylvania where it was always cloudy and unemployment near 20%. The farther I got from home, the freer I felt.

Finally, somewhere along Interstate #40 between Albuquerque and Flagstaff, where the road is flat and you can see for miles, something snapped and I took off my t-shirt. To drive down an open highway at 80 mph in shorts and sandals with the wind rushing in and the sun beating down and the radio playing ZZ Top is one of life’s high moments. I wasn’t about to let it pass by without a Howdy. It must be almost as good as getting a tattoo.

On another trip I remember driving through western Colorado and down through Utah in a blue 1980 Ford Fairmont station wagon and wondering if that sucker was going to make it over the next rise and if it didn’t I was going to be shit out of luck in the middle of Nowhere. There’s nothing like the desert to make you realize how insignificant you are in the bigger scheme of things; and nothing like pulling up in front of the family home to make you realize that although it is unchanged, you are not.

When was the last time you took a trip? Hit the highway, hopped a freight, tripped the lights fantastic? There’s probably no better way to get your life in perspective than to leave it for a while.

 

Sideways

I attended a daily Mass at the local Catholic Church yesterday and soon after the ceremony had begun the side door opened and a young woman pushing a wheel chair came through the door. She rolled the wheelchair to the end of the row right before me and knelt down.

In the chair was a young boy, perhaps about 11, was an alert handsome face, clear skin and eyes framed by thick lashes, and short dark hair. His young body was like a wash cloth, twisted, wrung out and left to dry in this chair. His right leg was bent and folded beneath him; his left arm bent and behind his back; his back hunched forward. His head was always looking over the left shoulder, his whole trunk turning to bring something into his range of view. He looked as if he was in a permanent yoga pose that saw the world sideways.

His body was in frequent movement, turning this way and that, the awkward left arm brought sometimes to the front of his body only to return behind his back within a moment. The right leg was sometimes sat on and at other times brought forward and crossed over the left. From his gnomish twisted position he looked out over the church parishioners, smiled and gave an abbreviated wave to some. His face did not betray any pain but was quite peaceful and interested in his surroundings.

I watched him throughout the Mass and offered up my prayers for him; may he have strength, may he have peace, may he be blessed, may he be loved. I asked God to give him any small blessing that may have been intended for me that day. I thought about this boy’s life, his past and future. I did not question that all was as it was supposed to be for this was not an intellectual situation but an emotional one. Was this young boy’s purpose to offer others an opportunity to feel compassion? Was he here to teach humility? Gratitude?  Patience?

I considered my own physical limitations and pains which amounted to nothing in comparison to his. In addition, I had had many, many years of good health and mobility and it would, to my mind, be selfish to ask for more when others like this young boy had had so little. But who knew what lie in his heart. Perhaps this physical impairment had loosened the strings which held the heart and mind to this reality and perhaps he soared to heights I had only read about. His clear eyes hinted at a state I rarely attained.

As I rose from my seat to leave, he noticed my movement and edged his wheelchair slightly forward so that I could easily pass behind him. Ever alert, ever willing, I thought, as I opened the heavy wooden door and passed from the dim, cavernous interior to the bright light of a September day. Tears slipped down my cheeks as I made my slow way to the car and I blessed the boy for being present to me