A young monk was sitting with his dying Zen master. “How do you feel, master,’ the student asked. “I am thinking of those golden moments of my life when I was truly awake,” the old master replied. “How many can you remember, sire?” “Twenty-five,” the old monk replied and with a sigh added, “Now, my teacher was a really great man and at the end of his life he could remember a whole hour.”
How often are we really ‘awake’? By that I mean how often are we fully alive, alert, non-personal, completely present. We are given a taste of that state periodically. Perhaps it is a dawn or sunset that is so beautiful that all thinking stops and we just see. Maybe it is the near car accident when we spin on an icy patch and time hangs suspended. It can be the sight of a newborn child, the death of a friend, an aria.
The other day I was thinking about the little Zen anecdote and began listing those out-of-time moments I have experienced in my own life. One of the earliest was climbing over a metal pipe fence, going down a steep grassy slope and exploring the small stream that ran alongside the street I walked on my way from school in the second grade.
On that spring day the rushing stream was full from recent rains which gave it a grumbling, rumbling voice. In its headlong rush to the distant river, the stream was swallowed up by the hungry mouth of the large, dark sewer pipe. A frisson of fear shot through me as I imagined myself whisked on that journey. As I scrambled up the bank, I looked across the stream and saw splashes of bright purple in the tall green grass. They were spring violets.
The other moment with violets happened more than twenty years later. One morning my younger son and I went for a walk in the nearby woods. We were strolling through a large open field on the top of a gentle hill. The lake was below, the sun above, the grass still wet with dew.
“Mommy,” I heard him call, and when I turned I saw my four-year old son, his blond hair blowing, a wide smile on his face and in his hand a fistful of wild flowers, running across the spring green grass as thousands of small pale violets were tossed and tumbled in the breeze. For an instant time stopped.
I think it is moments like these we will remember at the end of our lives – along with the ones that are more painful. Below is a poem I wrote many years ago that reminds me of these fleeting moments.
Say Not Wait
What is life but the splinters
of golden moments drilled and strung
and mounted in a net woven
by old women sitting in high clouds
chanting forgotten songs to dead heroes.
What is love but a white knight
who goes to distant lands in search
of the fair Elaine who carries the cup
whose lips Christ touched
one starry night before the blood came.
What is desire that we should say
‘wait’ or ‘I can not’ or ‘I am not ready’
because when we do, love slips away
into the forests of time leaving not
a trail for birds to follow anywhere.
So how can we say ‘no’ or ‘stop’
or ‘wait’ to the river that flows on
without ceasing. But reaching up,
let us grab the back of a fin and
slide beneath the waves and taste eternity.