Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The art of waiting and the certainty of death

Life, it seems, has been tearing ahead of me like a snow-obsessed beagle mix with cabin fever who's just been offered his first walk in weeks (this is a very specific simile. Snacks has been very excited about all the snow). It has been hard to keep up.

But I don't really want to talk about all that. The world will continue turning and churning whether I whine about it. And anyway, I'm the one who ends up choosing the pace at which I'm living.

For the last couple of weeks I've been wanting (and waiting) to write about waiting. 

Last year I spent a lot of time waiting to feel less weight. Waiting to feel happy and creative and productive. Depression, it seems, is a lot about waiting – even if while you're in it, you don't realize you're waiting. You just feel like you're sinking. And you don't even really care if you get pulled out of the bog. That self-preservation part seems muted and sluggish.

Since regaining my footing and returning to a more normal rhythm, I've come to realize that all that waiting was necessary. My brain had been demanding stillness. And when I resisted, it decided to force it on me.

I think waiting is often framed as a negative activity. We view it as the opposite of progress and productivity. Something that's foisted on us, unwanted and unwelcome. But maybe it doesn't have to be that way.

In fact, maybe it shouldn't be that way at all.

I recently picked up a copy of "Waiting" by Kevin Henke for a friend who's due to have her first baby in March. It's a children's book about a group of toys who spend their days on a window ledge waiting for things to happen. Waiting for the moon or the wind or the rain. And while they wait they watch the beautiful world outside the window. The illustrations are soft, sweet and lovely. And the sentiment is that waiting doesn't have to be this exasperating, temper-raising activity. It can be calm and sweet – and often necessary.

As a mother coming out of the holiday season I related to the story. And as a mother who's always anxious for certain phases of childhood to be over (do we really need to splash every time we get out of the bath tub? Every time?! And at what point do they start wiping themselves? And speaking of the potty, will I ever get to poop alone again?) But in between all these frustrating things are these beautiful moments of enduring sweetness that disappear before we even have a chance to acknowledge how wonderful they are. That's the bittersweet pill of motherhood. You spend so much time waiting for the sleep and the shower and the five minutes of peace, you can easily miss the pure joy of childhood.

Humans of New York recently had a post that touched on this exact thing (read the whole post here)

Don't treat your life as a waiting room. I mean, it's actually a waiting room for death I suppose. But then we should treat it like one of the most magical waiting rooms we experience. Let's not look at it like the line at the DMV. Or, if you are stuck in DMV mode, at least acknowledge all the others stuck there with you. Get their story. It's better when we share.

A couple weeks ago during my Sunday morning drive up to Blue Hound, I was listening to "On Being" on NPR. The guest was author and teacher Stephen Batchelor, who's written "Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist," "The Faith to Doubt" and "Buddhism Without Beliefs."

This portion of the interview stuck with me:

"MS. TIPPETT: I want to ask you — this is also from 'Buddhism Without Beliefs' — 'Since death alone is certain, and the time of death uncertain, what should I do?' So you are bringing the way Buddhist tradition has grappled with the ancient human question back to that question — what does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live? — without the promise of something beyond this life. 
And you said, so again, “Since death alone is certain, and the time of death uncertain, what should I do?” You wrote, “Over time, such meditation penetrates our primary sense of being in the world at all.” And I wondered if you would speak, as we close, just about — in a very concrete way, whatever that means, yesterday or today, about how this observation, this questioning, penetrates ordinary life, an ordinary day in the world, your primary sense of being in the world at all. 
MR. BATCHELOR: Well, the meditation on death that you’ve just read out is actually an adaptation of a Tibetan reflection on mortality. 
As a young man, I did this practice daily. I found, of all the Tibetan practices I did, it was the one that was most life-changing, to the extent that today, I find that my sense of being in the world is deeply infused with an awareness of how this may be my last day on Earth. And these reflections on death are not in the remotest sense morbid or gloomy.
The weird paradox is that the more you ask yourself that question — “Death is certain, its time is uncertain, what should I do?” — this brings you back to a very vivid sense that you’re alive. It intensifies the sense of aliveness, in terms of how you see the colors, the shapes, the leaves, the flowers, the — whatever impacts you visually, from the ears to the nose to the tongue to the body to the mind — it is a kind of intensifier of being alive. A kind of — almost a celebration of being here at all. 
And that is infused not only with a sense of wonder, but also with a sense of possibility, a sense of responsibility, that in what you say, think, do, this may be your final legacy on this earth. That, to me, is where this reflection leads me. And it’s with me — I wouldn't say every single minute of every single day. I also have moments in which I’m not particularly proud of how I speak or act or think. But broadly speaking, I find myself constantly returning to what’s implicit in that question. And that has made my life, I think, very full."
I've been ruminating on this -- at the farm as I'm picking stalls or at home when the girls are being especially ... trying ... "Since death alone is certain, and the time of death uncertain, what should I do?" and I have to say, it gives me pause. It helps me change my perspective. Be more loving. Be more patient. Be more gracious.

Today, as I was driving home from the farm on 83 I passed an accident scene. The rescue workers were holding up a white sheet, blocking the southbound traffic from seeing whatever was happening on the side of the road. 

I already knew what was going on though. 

The interstate was closed for miles around the accident scene – the road was empty. Eventually, I came to the backup. Miles and miles of tractor trailers and cars all waiting to  move.

When I got home, I texted Brad. "Was that accident on 83 N a fatal?"

"Yeah, it was. A pedestrian got hit by a truck I think," he wrote back.

And so, it goes again.

"Since death alone is certain, and the time of death is uncertain, what should I do?"

I should be kinder. More patient. More generous. More loving. Right now. Today. This month. This year. Because you never know what your last act might be. Where your life ends and your legacy begins. 
P.S. I'm kind of obsessed with the the song I included above, which I first heard while watching season two of "Transparent" (if you're not watching "Transparent" you should be watching "Transparent.") I love how meditative the song is. It calls for us to wait.

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