How would you feel if today were the last day of your life?
When I ask myself this question, most recently in meditations, the first feeling to arise is almost always one of gratitude. I contemplate the probabilities, and wonder how in a universe so vast and largely silent, I could for a glimmer experience. To have been born on Earth, to have lived to three decades, and in all that time the richness of things I have experienced, some 11,000 sunrises and sunsets.
That is alone enough to make me feel wealthier than the most hallowed/hollow of billionaires. But then to add to that the oceans crossed, the sounds of different languages, the affection and dedication of families, an irreplaceable education. In one lifetime to have debated philosophy in class, to have seen tracers start wildfires in the snow, to have, with a woman I loved, watched clouds cascade over frozen peaks. If it were to all end tonight, how could I possibly complain? I have been heaped gift upon gift.
Still what follows the amazement and the wonder is often anguish. In the waterfall of memories there are, even in this sheltered life, thorns and stones mixed in the water. I remember a difficult adolescence, small, petty moments that nevertheless crushed my faith in humanity, and then in myself when I mirrored them. Then there are the losses, of people and companions, of neighborhoods and times, of youth and hope and dreams.
In a strange way I am still grateful for all these things, for the experience of sorrow, in a way, is another privilege. As the Teacher once said, "a living dog is better than a dead lion." In a matter of time the wounds will wash away with the wealth, a million dawns will rise over my ashes.
Shoulds and oughts aside, the pain is there, the recollection of tears, and worse, the prediction of more to come, perhaps, most likely, the worst. And in thinking of this, the thought that perhaps someday someone may feel my loss, reminds me again that my days really are limited, and I don't know when the end will come.
At this point in the meditation this understanding is experiential, no longer just mere fact. I pass my hands over my soul and I can feel its fragility. A glass vessel, full of colored marbles, cracked by stones thrown at it. Still holding for now.
In breath, a long out breath. It's strange because after all this there's still often anger. There is still desire, to do more, to achieve 'goals', words that in this context feel so insignificant and petty, as if life were some sort of bank account, or bureaucracy, to administer. Still there is some respect for what feels like a mission, a cause that extends beyond my own life, something to inherit and pass on.
It's hard to reason about the impermanence of it all. Lately I have been thinking about how ephemeral my work is. The last half decade I have been working with information in some form of another, the code of human language, and others intended for communication with computers. I have almost no trace of my work from recent years. Hour upon hour of my life reduced to, not stone, not marble, not even ink on paper: patterns of electrons on silicon.
Still, the words of Socrates, who left no writing, somehow I have some echo of them today. Ideas from his mind that at some point vibrated through air, to another mind, have survived millennia. More solid things have vanished in that time; Diogenes sitting in the sun earned as much fame as Alexander, conquering empires. And ultimately I feel mostly unconcerned with remembrance, which is of little comfort to the dead, if it is even such a thing for the living.
As I flip bits and reorder bytes in my day to day life, I often recall Llama Tenzin working on his mandala in the arts building at Horace Mann. He labored over it a week or so, is what I remember, carefully placing colored sand over a table. I hardly recall the final product, which I do remember as impressive. The image that stays with me is when we went to the Hudson, and out of a glass jar poured the mandala's sand into the river. The pinks and blues and whites flowing into the waters, then dispersing.
So there it was, the practice, of making things with attention and dedication, but then also in letting them go in peace. Not holding on, not giving oneself the illusion that the work would not only outlast the maker, but time itself. Practicing letting go many times in life, to prepare for the final, making intricacies with sand, but never imagining that intricacies or makers amount to something more than sand.
In breath, out breath. Then I remember the time that Professor DeVito brought us out to the admissions building, where to remember a person lost there was a plaque with words by Blake:
He who binds to himself a joy Does the winged life destroy; But he who kisses the joy as it flies Lives in eternity's sunrise.
I think of the Teachers I have been lucky to have, all the people who have helped me build the ship for this journey. Everything that went into it to help it weather storms, and last days on end with no land on the horizon. In the end I always circle back to gratitude.
The Return of the Monarchs
When I was a child, on Roosevelt Island, hummingbirds and ladybugs were a common sight in spring and summer.
Over the last two decades, as far as I've been able to tell, both have vanished.
The Island has been home to a lot of development recently. Some areas that were wild have been cut away; but some areas that were empty lawns now have gardens.
And so today, for the third time this year, I saw monarchs flying on Roosevelt Island.
I heard recently that Roosevelt Island is now part of the "butterfly corridor" (Thanks, Obama!1, 2), an area intended to protect the journey of the monarchs, who travel south in winter, north in summer.
It brought me as much delight to hear about this program3 as it did to see the butterflies themselves. I hope we will, more and more, take on this role as guardians and caretakers, locally and globally. I believe we will need to, not only for our the good of our souls, but for our very survival.
I long to see the hummingbirds return. I hope that day is not too far off.