No, not really, not in the sense of ghosts or spectres.
What I see, in my mind and memory, are images of people past, those I knew personally who have moved on to the unknown realm. Starting with my first friend Bobby, who I knew in my preschool age years and who died a few years later of cancer. He's always around, in those vague and early memories of discovering life and the world.
My best childhood friend's sister, Suzanne, who died during high school when the car she was riding in, with a boy her parents had warned her about, when that car tried to race a train to a crossing, and lost. A high school classmate I barely knew, who graduated a year before me and died in Vietnam.
JoAnn, a girl I knew and hung out with during my college years, who I dubbed my "mere tad." We shared a tumult of feelings, and we never got past my resentment when she happily told me about her engagement. She later died, I read, also of cancer, after a long and I think happy marriage; she'd been a history major and her obit talked about her never-ending love of history. Now she's part of it.
I worked several years for the judicial system, both federal and state, as a law clerk to particular judges. I vividly recall talking with them of everything from law to family, laughing and stressing and doing the things people do in intense working relationships. Federal judge R., already in his 90s, asked me to write a eulogy for a judge friend of his who had died. So I did. A couple years later I wrote a eulogy for him and helped the newspaper reporter write the obit -- three years later I read that newspaper guy's obit. And I later wrote another eulogy for federal judge C.
All gone now.
Then there are family members, especially the older generation. Of my parents and uncles and aunts, only my mother remains alive, at 94. I recall the passing of one of my father's brothers, and my parents' quiet conversations about it, when I was myself a mere tad. And of course my father, fascinated by the idea of spirits and haunted houses, more than 20 years ago now died of a sudden heart attack and now, perhaps, has some of the answers to some of his questions. One by one they went, suddenly or slowly, into an unknown that used to seem so fantastic, in the mystery sense of the world, but now begins to seem simply inevitable. When my mother goes, I and my sister and brother and cousins will be the "older generation" to be tolerated and accepted and perhaps wondered at and maybe even pitied sometimes.
Anyway, they are all gone now, and so many memories rise up and slip back.
When one is young and healthy it's easy to presume that death is somehow a failure of living, or a bad break, or something that happens to someone else. And as other people die but we stay alive, we get an inevitable sense of immortality. We get to sit back and watch and comment and wonder, as people who were once vibrant and alive cross over. We go to funerals and listen as the bell tolls, maybe intellectually understanding but not really accepting, that one day the bell will toll for us.
I no longer have that luxury; as the saying goes, it's not the end of my life but I can see it from here. I recall my father saying, with fascination, that he had reached his promised "three score and ten," and all he had left was bonus time, a bonus that turned out to be eight years. I'm two years from reaching my own three-score and ten.
When I was younger I too had a great appreciation for ghost stories. Usually those ghosts were unhappy spirits of people who had some unfinished business, but almost inevitably those were spirits of people who had led strong and, if not virtuous, at least accomplished lives. Where does my 10-year-old friend Bobby fit into that, or my Aunt H., who I loved dearly but, to the best of my knowledge, had no sort of powerful presence or even especially deep thoughts; yet both of them have passed over, too, and experienced whatever it is that lies there, which must be fantastical or mysterious. Or, I guess, maybe nothing.
All of which leaves me with a renewed interest in the religious and spiritual realm. When one accepts that everything logical and solid and demonstrably true is, in fact, ephemeral and illusory, the need for something deeper becomes clear. And to find that one must let go of the known and find. . . . And find what? To the best of my knowledge no one has ever come back and told me what that unknown future holds (I know that my Christian friends will say Jesus did, but even He has never talked to me). I have to look into my heart and poke around in the deeper recesses of my awareness and subconscious, always mindful that what I find may be mistaken, or wishful thinking, or even malignant misadvice.
At least for now, the Tao te Ching offers one appealing perspective:
"Knowing constancy, the mind is open.
With an open mind, you will be open-hearted.
Being open-hearted, you will act royally.
Being royal, you will attain the divine.
Being divine, you will be at one with the Tao.
Being at one with the Tao is eternal.
And though the body dies, the Tao will never pass away."
As I close this, I sense some of those dead people pushing into my consciousness, and I'm glad to see them. At least sort of. For now anyway.
I've mentioned before my limited handyman talents, and my stubborn insistence on doing things that "seem" manageable, and are manageable with ease to people with experience in handling them. To me each one is more or less a new experience, which means I find new mistakes to make, mistakes that, over time, would become simply learning memories. That's what I tell myself anyway.
This time it was the bifold door to the linen closet. The old one kept coming loose, and the adjustments were getting harder and harder. Finally it simply wouldn't adjust, and I took it off. A neat solution, I thought, but one that was summarily rejected by the distaff side of the family parental unit. So I bought a new one to install. Not a totally new experience, I'd replaced the coat closet one a few years back. That one, though, required a custom-made door, because the previous owners had raised the level of the kitchen and hall floor by simply placing wood over the old flooring, rather than removing it. Which meant no off-the-shelf door would fit. Which meant a quality replacement, since the "cheaper" ones don't lent themselves to being shortened. Point is, that was a good quality door with quality parts, and all went relatively smoothly.
This door was off-the-shelf, and made from pressed wood instead of solid wood. Kind of like really strong cardboard, and with pre-drilled holes for the pivot pieces, which were themselves of plastic and cheap thin metal. And rather vague instructions. But I seemed to know what I was doing, and managed to insert the pivot pieces by using a hard-rubber mallet to pound them into holes they didn't want to go into. There were four holes for three pieces, and the instructions didn't say exactly which ones go in which holes. So I did some calculating and assuming.
The hardware brackets went on relatively easily, once I did some adjusting for the fact that (of course) two of the holes had to be drilled right next to nails holding the frame into the wall. But I did it, and the time came to put the door in. Well, again of course, I'd put the pivots in exactly wrong, despite all my calculations, so that the door would have to be put on backwards, something I was sure my wife might notice and object to (she's out of town these few days and this was to be a surprise project, done when she got home). So I had to pull those pivots out, and for two of them it meant that the cheap plastic sleeves broke off, leaving most of the sleeve inside. It's a rule by the way, that the more cheaply made a product is, the harder it is to use and install -- but at least it's cheaper.
Anyway, after a lot of sweating and cursing and improvising -- the floor seemed to be covered with almost every tool from my downstairs workshop -- I pushed and prayed and finally popped the pivots into place. The door works, and seems to slide smoothly and solidly. And it looks good. After only about two hours on something a pro could probably knock off in 45 minutes, including a cigarette break. But I'm reasonably sure that my third door will go much smoother, when, not if, it's needed.
And I can put another notch in my handyman belt. If I can figure out how to do it without damaging the belt.
I thought when I decided to commit to a year of Tao that I would be posting about it, about my discoveries and my thoughts on those discoveries. But I find that the more I study, the less I have to say. Partly because I realize how little I know, but more essentially because the more I learn the less there is to say. The living Tao is an elusive story about a way of being, not a set of abstract ideas.
I know when I first discovered it, many years ago (before I consciously -- and I now believe wrongly -- put it aside as being among my outgrown adolescent affectations) I spent a few years trying to incorporate it into my life. I don’t think it was wasted time. I did learn -- or maybe unlearn -- a lot of the mystery behind the obvious. Even now a very good friend of mine from those days, who has since become a respected Yoga and Buddhist teacher, has told me I was one of his first teachers, that I pointed him some basic things.
Yet I found I found myself unsatisfied and adrift, and spent quite a bit of time looking for the stories of others who had gone the same way I was going but found value in it. I found none. Every time I looked I found the opposite -- people who had been drifting but found meaning. I wanted to find something by someone who had gone from meaning to drifting. Until one day I realized that people who truly followed Tao rarely wrote about it. As Chuang Tzu puts it,
“The man of Tao
Is ‘True Self’
And the greatest man
Or as Lao Tsu put it, “Those who know do not talk/Those who talk do not know.” (Ch. 56)
But these are not answers, of course. Lao Tsu and Chuang Tzu were not nobodies. They talked and wrote. Why then should I trust their words?
Yet I know there is something there, beyond the words themselves, which are signposts to something else, something, as Lao Tsu says, is indefinable, which when found leaves the words behind as empty husks.
So I’m looking for something that cannot be found and trying to find understanding where there can be none. In the undefined belief that something of value lies somewhere in there. (And something that has haunted me for years, no matter how hard I tried to ignore it). A search that can obviously be dangerous. As Chuang Tzu put it,
“If you persist in trying
To attain what is never attained
(it is Tao’s gift)
If you persist in making effort
To obtain what effort cannot get;
If you persist in reasoning
About what cannot be understood,
You will be destroyed
By the very thing you seek.”
Yikes, to put it mildly.
Yet Chuang Tzu closes by adding these words of hope:
“To know when to stop
To know when you can get no further
By your own action,
This is the right beginning!”
So this is what I am doing, seeking the beginning to something I don’t know I can find, and when I get there I will get nowhere but somewhere.
Wish me luck (Zen maybe I will get it.)
I like to blog about the world around me, and noble ideas and the like, but sometimes the truths around and about me are not pretty. Like this.
I am embarrassed but feel compelled to admit that I “lost my temper” on the phone yesterday, during a conversation with a representative of an agency working with my son. They had decided, based on their computer model, that a service we have been providing him is no longer therapeutic according to their definition, and so will not be funded. I knew that answer was coming, and I tried to school myself to stay calm and argue rationally, but I didn’t. At the time what I heard and reacted to was a smug, “we understand that you don’t agree, and that is your right, but . . . .” I refused to hear more, and told the young woman that their decision was simply wrong and I didn’t want to hear any sugar-coating, that I would be appealing it, and would be considering changing agencies.
So what did I accomplish? Nothing. The answer stayed the same, I had likely burnt a bridge, and felt bad (and I'm pretty sure she did, too. At the moment that was my intention).
More fundamentally, I demonstrated a serious flaw in my self. To quote the Christian writer, C.S. Lewis,
"Surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of man he is...If there are rats in a cellar, you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly. But the suddenness does not create the rats: it only prevents them from hiding. In the same way, the suddenness of the provocation does not make me an ill-tempered man: it only shows me what an ill-tempered man I am...Apparently the rats of resentment and vindictiveness are always there in the cellar of my soul."
So that’s the kind of man I am. Ill-tempered. No matter how much I smooth it over and deny it when things are going my way.
So where do I go from here? Do I simply accept that’s who and what I am, and go on being that person. I don’t think that’s a wise choice.
I have a vague idea that Christians would ask to be forgiven and pray for help, and here’s what the Taoists say about bad temper:
"Temper is the result of emotions running wild . . . .Bad temper is the result of self-importance. Bad temper is harmful to health because it creates bad ch’i in our bodies.Verbal arguments, competitiveness, aggressiveness, impatience, frustration, annoyance, are all manifestations of bad temper. How can people with these dispositions attain the Tao?"
Seven Taoist Masters: A Folk Novel of China
Not good news. So what do I do, here in my year of Tao?
“Know the illusion of material goods. Cultivate compassion and your temper will be calmed. . . . . The Taoists tell us to ‘act intuitively.’ . . . .[W]e need to act intuitively, that is, act spontaneously from a heart that is tamed of desire and craving. If you can do these things, then you will have no problem attaining the Tao.” Id.
Peace of cake, what? So what is Taoist compassion, anyway (other than one of the Three Jewels of Taoism as set out in Chapter 67 of the Tao Te Ching? According to Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education,
“In the classical teachings. . . compassion is defined as the heart that trembles in the face of suffering. At times, compassion is translated as the heart that can tremble in the face of suffering. It is aspired to as the noblest quality of the human heart, the motivation underlying all meditative paths of healing and liberation.
Compassion is a response to suffering, the inevitable adversity all human beings will meet in their lives, whether it is the pain embedded in the fabric of ageing, sickness and death or the psychological and emotional afflictions that debilitate the mind. Compassion is the acknowledgment that not all pain can be ‘fixed’ or ‘solved’ but all suffering is made more approachable in a landscape of compassion.
Compassion is a multi-textured response to pain, sorrow and anguish. It includes kindness, empathy, generosity and acceptance. The strands of courage, tolerance, equanimity are equally woven into the cloth of compassion. Above all compassion is the capacity to open to the reality of suffering and to aspire to its healing. The Dalai Lama once said, ‘If you want to know what compassion is, look into the eyes of a mother or father as they cradle their sick and fevered child'”
That’s a lot to live up to. I started by sending an e-mail of apology and reminding myself that there is no reason to treat another human being like an object to be attacked.
It’s a beginning, right?
Okay, I admit I've never seen Game of Thrones, but someone told me that's where the phrase comes from. Anyway, it fits today. I can at least temporarily set aside the nagging issue of global warming, because the unseasonable mud and brown of a snowless, too-warm winter are gone, for now.
Outside is a 4 or so inch carpet of clean white snow, and the trees are all trimmed in white. The crimson cardinal at my feeder stands out brightly, and a black-and-white junco sits in the barren cherry tree, framed by frigid rigid branches, though he flew off before I got a chance to take a photo. When I went out to re-fill the feeders, I found myself scolded by a chickadee, apparently peeved because it took me so long. The back patio is criss-crossed by rabbit tracks, reminding me that they are hoping for a bite as well.
It's the first significant snow of the season and it's about time. We did get a dusting of snow on Christmas Eve, so technically it was a white Christmas, but barely. This latest, though, was snow in earnest, big, heavy flakes dancing down in the still air, silently piling up all night. I was out shoveling the drive and sidewalks as the dark of night gave way to the pale gray of morning, and it was wonderful. I haven't even fueled the snowblower this year -- I have an intuitive feeling that there will be no need this year; the time will come soon enough when I will have to use it because I will sometime be too frail to shovel seriously, so now, while I can, I'll get the exercise and quiet pleasure of shoveling. My perspective might change if and when we get an 8 or so inch snow, but that's not here now.
Earth will adapt to any changes imposed by man or nature, but we humans are temporal and temporary beings, placed in a particular place at a particular time with particular expectations and likes. Here in the American north, I expect snow and ice, and am glad every time it arrives at the appropriate time or so, because that's a part of my world I grew up with and like to have around.
The snow will melt away, probably too soon according to the forecast, but for now all feels well and proper. Just like me; I too will melt away into my kids' memory soon enough, but for now all feels well and proper. Today, this moment, to quote Robert Browning and to speak metaphorically,
God's in his heaven—
All's right with the world!
Separate names with a comma.