Sometimes I imagine trying to tell my younger self how life is now, as I approach 70. Where would I begin? What parts could I tell and what would I want to leave out? Musing like this, I remember a story I heard Ram Das tell, shortly after his book, Remember, Be Here Now, came out.
It must have been in 1972 when, to the immense delight of would be meditators and druggies and college students across the province of Ontario, Ram Das arrived in Toronto. Hundreds of us crowded into one of the great halls at the University of Toronto for what was probably our first real evidence that we were not alone. We looked around at each other, thrilled to discover how many of us there were, and when Ram Das sauntered in and settled into a lotus position on the stage, we exploded into wild applause. “Come, come, whoever you are,” he began, quoting a quatrain attributed to Rumi. Melancholy lines that made our hearts feel like they were bursting from our chests and that finally we had found our true companions.
“Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving. Ours is not a caravan of despair.” No, it wasn’t. We were sure of that now.
“Come, even if you have broken your vow ten thousand times. Come, come again, come.” The lines seemed written just for us, lines that assured us that we were all included with Ram Das himself, on the road all this time and longing to join the great caravan and be here now. Our sense of yearning was palpable, and so was our sense of sharing something unspeakably important that Ram Das somehow had words for and spun into captivating personal stories.
Of all the tales he told that night, I remember only one. I laughed along with everyone else when he told it. The story was about an old woman who sat in the front row of the audience one night when Ram Das was telling about his LSD experiences and big realizations with his guru. He told us that each time he would describe one of his transcendent experiences, the old lady would smile and nod vigorously. She wore a straw hat with a spray of cherries on it, and each time she nodded, the cherries would shake.
At the end of the evening, Ram Das approached her. “My dear lady,” he said, “you seem to understand everything I’ve spoken about tonight. Have you been experimenting with LSD too?”
“Oh, no, Ram Das,” she replied sweetly.
“Well, what is your secret, then?”
She leaned over and whispered, “I crochet.”
Our roomful of twenty and thirty somethings roared in laughter. I heard him tell this story many times. Every time, I could see the lady vividly with her shiny cherries trembling as she nodded enthusiastically. But somewhere along the line I stopped laughing and began to wonder, what happened when she was crocheting? How come she understood Ram Das without doing drugs? What did she know that we didn’t?
* * *
When a friend calls and asks what’s new, I don’t say, “I was in bliss in the kitchen this morning pouring my tea.” I know I’d sound like an idiot. But though I wouldn’t say such things out loud, I want to write them here because, after all, what good is growing old if you don’t tell the truth about what you’re discovering?
I feel like I’m walking in another country and I can’t distinguish what is just my own peculiarity and what might actually be noteworthy, part of the natural landscape of growing old. All I can do is to record faithfully what I’m finding along the way. And part of the record is the fullness that seems to be here so much of the time, sitting quietly, waiting for me to notice. I wonder if this is what the old lady with the cherries on her hat felt when she was crocheting?
Which brings me to the question of what makes life feel so full now, so satisfying, when it was the opposite of that all through my thirties and forties. I think it has something to do with what the Buddhists call impermanence and what almost everybody else calls endings.
For many years I worked in an office that had little to commend it except an excellent view of a black oak tree in the yard next door. Between my therapy clients, I would stand at the window, enjoying the tree as it went through its changes from naked branches to sprouting parasols of pale green to the full dark glory of its summer crown. The previous occupant had left a framed calligraphy next to the window. When I wasn’t looking at the tree, I’d read the calligraphy: “I know this cup is already broken so I enjoy it completely.”
I would say the words out loud, imagining the writer as he turned the cup in his hand to admire the way the light reflected through its surface. I loved looking at the tree that way, admiring how it filtered sunlight into pale green or dark leafy shadows on the wall. And when November rains knocked down its leaves and the cold air curled and withered them, it was easy to understand the calligraphy’s meaning, how temporariness makes every moment precious.
But a cup, already broken? I’d look around the room, imagining the books, the chairs, the walls themselves disintegrating to dust. Did it make them all mean more, to know that they and I will vanish so quickly? It was an idea then, something to contemplate. That changes too, of course– the mere concept of the impermanence of things, including oneself. It gets more real. I don’t think this is something that happens consciously. It’s more that out of the corner of our eye, slightly outside the focus of our attention, what we take to be real is shifting—especially, our unquestioned assumption of the permanence of things. Along the way, certain events assist that erosion.
Two years ago I encountered one of those events. In the middle of a busy month, at the beginning of a week where I was trying to squeeze in a yoga weekend before a meditation retreat, my doctor phoned at 8 p.m. How nice of you to call this late at night, I said with what turned out to be stunning naivite. He told me briskly that the bruise on my arm he’d dismissed a year ago biopsied as a melanoma. He’d scheduled surgery for Friday.
In a way it’s all so easy once the diagnosis of cancer is clear. You cancel everything. There was that first quick surgery, and then another one, and another. Four in all. There was such a cascade of tests and surgeries and down time and cancelling and rescheduling that it wasn’t until after the third surgery that I asked myself how I felt about dying. I wondered what I would miss. So much felt complete: my work, the friendships that are dear to me, the great love that is present every day with my husband, Paul. If I had children or grandchildren, I’m sure I would want to be here to see them grow, but I don’t. There wasn’t any sense of things left undone. I could go, I thought. I felt a sense of ease, a kind of lightness and neutrality.
Really? So there’s nothing to keep me here? Something arose then that surprised me, something I hadn’t even imagined. A love of life itself burst through with such authority and strength that I had not the slightest doubt about it. I want to live, I realized, because of the pure goodness of life just as it is. The Tara statue on my table and the orange cat stalking the finches in our front yard and my arm with the scar needing more surgery— every one is perfect and tremulous in its momentary existence. All the stuff, as I once called it, is heartbreakingly temporary and precious, is already broken, including me. So I enjoy it all completely, as the calligraphy put it.
Not just completely. Helplessly. I love it as helplessly as a grandmother with a new grandchild, undone by the innocence and beauty of the life she’s holding in her arms. I think this is what it means to enjoy life completely, and it seems to be happening more and more as I age.
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