The leaves fall silent deaths in rivulets down the forested valleys. Walking is the fall activity of choice...feet swishing, kicking at the swirling blanket, or silent as a fox creeping on the carpet of damp watercolors strewn laissez-faire across the forest floor.
I stare at painted skies and huge questions float as heavy and thick as clouds through my subconscious. Where did this all come from? What is the purpose of this beauty? Why do I get to see it, here, today?
The older you get entitlement falls off you like the ill-fitting garment it always was. Replacing it is a new awe for the holiness of life. The sacredness of each and every thing we take for granted: warmth, light, growth, tenderness, affection, strength, courage, justice, breath and heart beat and a working brain. The sun rising and setting each day. The seasons turning like clockwork every year, from winter's storehouses of snow watering the spring earth to this suicide of the leaves in autumn that flames bright as a lit match and just as briefly as the coming cold paints the earth dark and slimy and dead. From death springs life and all life acquiesces to death in the end.
Buddha observed it - the "enlightened one", Siddhartha, a prince whose compassion was picqued by the tragedy of poverty in his kingdom. The starving prophet who teaches of kindness and justice and mercy and a long, winding road of meditation and searching to get to that place of understanding. Just another man, another prophet in a world full of prophets. Maybe it is the magic of the singing bowls and their endless single note of reverbration that gives a glow to Buddhism. Maybe it is the very soul of the man whose mission in life was love, shining pure through the ages?, through the pages of the Sutras, through the words, chanting voices, bowing bald heads of the lamas and monks who follow in the way to dharma.
From my Christian viewpoint, Buddha has always towered like an unfamiliar Solomon, the king of the Jews who asked God for wisdom instead of wealth.
The Qur'an reads unnervingly similar to the Bible - the Old Testament, death and destruction, obey or else. Parts of the Psalms and Proverbs of Christianity are echoed almost word for word. I remember slogging through the Qur'an one winter when I took care of a Muslim child who was dying. His mother, devout Sufi, questioned her faith in the face of such tragedy. She had not yet been to Mecca, she did not always say the 5 daily prayers. She called this struggle the "greater jihad" - the struggle to maintain one's faith in the face of adversity. This jihad had nothing to do with killing others and everything to do with ravaging one's own soul with worry, doubt, and constant inadequacy. We often had the Bible, Qur'an and Torah open in front of us as we talked late into the night, I hovering over her sedated son. I remember her telling me, a few hours after he died, that to consider a life without Allah was too hopeless for her to fathom. She repeated Muhammed's words, the words he said when he lost his own son, "The eyes shed tears and the heart is grieved, but we will not say anything except which pleases our Lord." As she says this, I hear the echo of David's words when his infant son died, after days of supplication for mercy, days of weeping. The child died, he picked his disheveled body up off the dirt floor of his home, ate, dressed, slept with his wife. When his servants asked him why he had ceased to grieve for the child as soon as he died, David replied, "While the baby was still alive, I fasted, and I cried. I thought, ‘Who knows? Maybe the Lord will feel sorry for me and let the baby live.’ But now that the baby is dead, why should I fast? I can’t bring him back to life. Someday I will go to him, but he cannot come back to me.”
Death: the unquestionable final barrier between life as we know it and a space and place we cannot fathom, understand, or confirm. Is it streets of gold or a cold grave we never even feel? Can a soul, which is invisible matter, disappear entirely and cease being?
The room was hushed and quiet as I helped her bathe her son's small body with scented water, white flowers floating like little life rafts in the bowl. She called this absolution, the washing. She said all Muslims do just so to prepare to pray. Her quiet voice punctuated the deep and reverant silence of the room with a sacred melody of both longing and abiding faith. She brought beautiful hand-embroidered white sheets from the mosque, and we wrapped him slowly, the kafan of the sheets a cocoon where he would wait for resurrection. I asked her about her silence. No tears. No weeping. No gnashing of teeth or asking why in that last lap to death and now to her cold son wrapped in his kafan. She would never see his face again on this earth. Her black eyes glinted for just a moment while her jaw clamped and unclamped. I will never forget the forced breath, almost through gritted teeth, with which she said, "I am compelled to believe, else I will follow him from heartbreak. This cannot be the end. I must believe my son is with Hazrat Izrael, alaihis salaam*." Her son's death, the final separation, cemented her decision. She could not face a world in which death is the end. She could not face life without hope.
The Jews say Jesus was perhaps a prophet. Not a messiah. After all, does it seem like the world has been saved? Christians argue that in some eternal, unseen way, yes, we have all been saved if we will only accept Christ's rule over our hearts and bodies.
I remember the first time I saw the bald head of an Orthodox hasidic Jewess: in the overly warm confines of her son's ICU room, full of the smell of his failing body, she sadly tilted her head to the side as she sighed, pulling her shietel from her shining hairless scalp. I had no idea she wore a wig. She saw my curious stare, and she said quietly that she shaved her head to avoid tempting her husband with the beauty of her hair. I watched her for months, praying 5 times a day, reading in Hebrew to her other children, the quiet submission she put on like a heavy black cloak when her husband was present. She was a spitfire, a real female dynamo: she often engaged in screaming matches with one of the harshest physicians, arguing with him that her son would live, his rotting flesh would transform and renew, that G--, whose name she could not speak aloud, he prospers and rescues the faithful. Around Jewish men she was silent; she even moved quietly and meekly. She was steeped so heavy in the laws of the Torah that she wept each night in agony that her unconscious missteps might be causing her son's agonizing death from leukemia.
When he died, they called him go-sess, a person who has passed into a sacred time of life to prepare for death and eternity. Because he was unconscious - blessedly - his father left the room to gather a minyan, a group of ten upstanding Sephardic Jewish men who could say the Vidui, or final confession, in the dying boy's place. This series of Yiddish and Hebrew prayers and chants went on for hours, accompanied by the wailing of the women. No sanction from the nursing staff could quiet them. Wailing is part of the process, the rabbi whispered to us outside the room. As the moment of death approached, each space between breaths becoming longer and longer, the teenager's body growing colder and darker as life ebbed away, the displays of the women became more and more dramatic. They tore clothes, dragged nails across skin as if by wounding themselves they could buy back time, buy back life, buy back a world they could understand.
We all have gods, I heard a preacher say more than once. Love of money. Fellow man. Liberty. King and country. Family. Education. Career. Fame. True love. Some claim Allah, some claim God, some are too afraid to claim a name out loud, and call it shem shalo - "the name that is his". We are all on a path from birth to death, so far universally inextricable circumstances about which many of us have formed or adopted elaborate mazes of protective reassurances. Some seek enlightment. Some heaven. Some nirvana. Some seek Truth. Some seek equality. We all want to believe there's a reason for us to be here. We all hope for something that transcends the eat-poop-pee-sleep-sex-work-illness-loss-joy ordinary of life. A reason for being. A reason for suffering. A reason for dying.
Is it wrong to believe something just to comfort yourself? Is it possible that God and the whole story is a figment of our collective imagination, a construct for the world that allows us to keep the dark mysteries of the universe at bay? All who turn to the skies for answers, all of us the world over, we are part of a pulsing ache - the same yearning for a perfect divinity who is master of the universe and is pulling the puppet strings on our behalf.
The only ones who can answer our questions are those who can no longer speak. Perhaps they speak through the very dirt their bodies return to, as their lost lives feed this flaming world of beautiful dying. They are the life that feeds the maples turning. Can it be enough for me, to see the beauty and to see the pain, to hold close the helpless truth that I can alter none of it except for my actions while I am here and breathing?
I call this radical acceptance. I call this the never-ending river of questions that runs through us all and rushes loudly in some souls more than others, demanding attention, demanding answers. When there is no answer, how do we continue on?
Two verses from the very book I'm doubting press gently on my back, nudging me to walk on. Faith without deeds is dead. Put your hand down, nurse, on the suffering hand before you. Open your mouth, teacher, and guide others toward justice, peace, love, sacrifice, fulfillment. Extend your arms, mother, for embraces here may be part of the answer. Soften your heart, lover, and find the path your partner is plodding along, find the hand that has given up hope of holding yours. Even if it is just this moment, even if there is nothing else, love matters. If all we have is each other, and there is no commander in the clouds, love is everything still.
Finally, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things.
Wisdom seems to swirl around like a dust devil in the prairie wind, a tumbleweed moving too fast along the dust to chase. In the moments just before the dawn, my eyes search deep into the black night outside my window. And a single phrase, Spanish, comes to mind, and I can rest. "Y si nada nos libra de la muerte, al menos que el amor nos salve de la vida." It is a line from a poem by Javier Velaza, written for his book Torn in 1963. In my language, this dusty Latin professor from Universitat de Barcelona says, "If nothing saves us from death, oh that love would save us from life."
the pain itself
crosses the threshold
with your arms
a lifeguard, I sink to prevent
the grievous, lethal plummet
-would that I could almost hope-
not a word well-remembered,
you manage my forgetfulness and the gift of unconsciousness,
which shelters me from my worst enemy
and more tenaciously, you grant grace,
even lie -
because everyone is lying
and yours is pious -
which seals my eyes
and tells me it is over, it's over, it's over
and comfort me that
nothing happens, because nothing is past,
And if nothing frees us from death,
oh that love would save us from life.
(from El Salvavidas, "The Lifeguard")