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My imagination was wild with armed young men at every corner at 4:30 a.m., waiting for tender Zen students.

I made it to the car, the key in the ignition, squeezed out between a large Ford and a van onto the street, down the avenue to the zendo, and into the small dokusan room. I was off-the-charts shaking, telling him about what happened three nights before.

He listened. “You are afraid of death.”

I reeled, then fell through. All the other details dropped away. My body relaxed. Something made sense; something I could work with.

And now ten years later on a New Year’s morning I thought about this again. I had gotten hard results from an early autumn blood test. Not terminal illness, but slowly—and it had probably been happening for a long time—death was making its meandering way through my body. In the last months, though I managed to function well, underneath I was swimming in an abyss and could not find a foothold. I tried to imagine travel, things I’d never done before and wanted to do—I couldn’t think of a thing. What did I want to change? Nothing. What did I regret and wished I’d done differently? Usually I’m a great lamenter, but faced with the bold truth of my finite life, I caved into my past, almost accepting it all. Then sleepless nights would punctuate my dull submission, tormenting me with failure in all directions. The still night, the click of the clock in the other room, knowing the next morning I was leaving on a trip, seemed to enhance my despair. All my life I’d been stalked by extremes but now the fire burned hotter, fueled by terror. In the past my most reliable elixir had been to continue under all circumstances. But now the biting thought: someday no circumstances will exist.

When my father died, I felt how very close death was; when my mother died, the veil was lifted. The illusion that my parents were a wall, a guard, a boundary between me and the end was over. Death became familial. But when the condition was mine directly, landed in my body, there was nothing vague. The day I heard, a Wednesday, it was like taking LSD; reality opened up, but this time nobody could come along on my trip.

And yet, it’s hard to stay in relation to death. An equal urge arises in me to race to the bank, to the grocery—before it closes. Daily life is so seductive: we believe if we keep moving we finally can catch up, get our bills paid for all time.

We also believe our stories. Everyone does. But where would we be without them? They embrace the full contradictions of our lives.

I remember when I was up in Minnesota. I had to drive through Cloquet, the hometown of the teacher I’d moved back to study with, on my way to Hibbing, where Bob Dylan was raised. We were making a documentary on the influences of the Iron Range on Dylan’s songs. I asked the film crew to stop outside the teacher’s childhood home—the deep front lawn, the gray clapboard house in the distance. I remembered the teacher telling me about his sister who became vice president of one of the large airlines and all at once couldn’t take the pressure, the success. She moved back to this remote hometown. I thought about how deep the tracks of lineage and pattern and family run.

Death is only half the story. The other half is life, how to navigate in these slippery waters, how to keep the humbling knowledge of our end in sight. How we all seem to blow it one way or another, but how important it is to admit our mistakes, not turn our back on anything. It’s in the details of what we have done that we can find our liberation. Yet how easily we forget and move away from the heat and honesty of our moments. We need our stories to remind us and to mirror our reality. And we need our writers to record them.

Hemingway wrote Death in the Afternoon about bullfighting in Spain. He writes in the introduction that he wanted to study death. That every writer needs to know about it.

Death is not romantic. It’s the bottom line.

Originally published in the January 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to browse the entire issue online.


Natalie Goldberg: Her best from the Shambhala Sun

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