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imagination was wild with armed young men at every corner at 4:30 a.m.,
waiting for tender Zen students.
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.”
reeled, then fell through. All the other details dropped away. My body
relaxed. Something made sense; something I could work with.
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.
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.
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.
also believe our stories. Everyone does. But where would we be without
them? They embrace the full contradictions of our lives.
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.
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.
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