Even though it’s warmer than I wish (our new climate-changed winter) as January comes to a close, the colors and forces and faces of the season are familiar. I took a long walk this evening and got reacquainted with an old friend, the Roanoke River. Another old friend, Tom, died this week. He let go of life, and, with great atheistic enthusiasm, was resolute in his conviction this life was all we have, so when he “departs” waste no money on preachery, no precious energy on prayers, and shed no tears regarding saving his “soul.” Essentially, remember him fondly and move onward.
He was already in great pain when his beloved pet cat Ruby, with him two decades, was killed by a car in front of his home in October. A few of us were concerned it might throw our cancer-ridden, battling-yet-still vital friend into a downward spiral, that he might “check out” on his own volition. Police happened upon the dead pet scene and a kind police woman, seeing Tom struggling to dig a hole to bury Ruby in his garden, insisted she would take care of the digging and he should just take it easy and not get worked up. Telling him “People sometimes get upset and aren’t real aware of themselves when such things happen.” This man who had endured a terribly tough, physically abusive childhood, who’d escaped to the US Army (as a closeted gay man, no less) and then lived in West Africa in a hut on an island off of an island and suffered many illnesses there, then rubbed shoulders in NYC & SF with uber elite wealthy, and walked among the poorest of the poor, and had seen and endured so many things, told me: “Well, I was just fine digging a little hole. As far as I was concerned, dear Ruby was gone the minute she expired in the street. Now all I was doing was putting the dead body of a cat into the garden for the worms. I really don’t know what all the fuss was about.”
So I’ve been reflecting on this a bit since Tom died two days ago. Callous as this may come across to some, I find great comfort in his view. Wrapped within his hatred of religious institutions was his love of integrity, and within his “onward” phrase was a push to not waste the moment before us. Sadness was real, natural and acceptable, but not to be something that debilitated one. Far worse was to be trapped within an unsatisfying or miserable life. Which he’d been determined and successfully avoided for his last 50 years, and, I assume, was what he felt encroaching upon him these last months. So his departing was sort of his ticket off the misery train before it had carried him too far.
"...sadness is good. May sadness be a bond for you with humanity. May sadness connect you to life. Life contains difficult times and life has beautiful times. This is a complete image, and you can't live a human life without all these aspects being part of it. This is a kind of myth that you could avoid all painful parts and just have the pleasant parts. This will certainly never happen. People keep wishing it would never happen. So the fact that it hurts and you feel sad, think of it as really helping. Consider it growth, sometimes it's what growth looks like. " ~~ Pema Chödrön
This evening I crossed the bridge over the river and cast my eyes at the water. I was struck by the resonate beauty of the currents and the rich, nuanced colors, framed by golden grasses and the leafless silver, umber, and red tipped branches. As I walked on along the Greenway I found myself pulled off the paved trail, down to the river’s bank. I felt magnetically drawn to the water’s edge, pulled to be immersed within it once again, as I’d been for weeks as last summer turned into fall. I wanted to step into it today, let it float me off, forget the notion of trying to control anything, release all my concerns. I was ready to bounce against some rocks and let those flows twirl me. This evening part of me wanted to again wordlessly nod at the herons, let life flow through me, float on my back and gaze unthinkingly at the clouds. But just as in the summer, this was not entirely about finding a distraction. I felt energies. The water was clearly more forceful today, and the power of those hypnotizing currents only made its invitation more appealing. As I crouched on the bank and took in the rhythms of the powerful torrents, I also sensed a kind of merger, a losing of my self within them.
“If you can live with the sadness of human life (what Rinpoche often called the tender heart or the genuine heart of sadness), if you can be willing to feel fully and acknowledge continually your own sadness and the sadness of life, but at the same time not be drowned in it, because you also remember the vision and power of the Great Eastern Sun, you experience balance and completeness, joining heaven and earth, joining vision and practicality.” ~~ Pema Chödrön
Earth and heaven. Tom would laugh heartily at the notion he is now “wearing a robe and sandals on some cloud in the sky.” He was more of the Mark Twain “Go to heaven for the climate, hell for the company” type. Likely he’d be annoyed even to hear anyone exclaim he was once again with his beloved Ruby. But I do think he might accept that each of their bodies were now feeding other life, and that the circle and flow of energies was continuing onward, just as he had admonished me to do. I think too, that he would encourage us not to accept any BS, from others or from within our selves; to be authentic and true. To be as soft-spoken or loud or assertive or gentle as you can, but most importantly be honest; be genuine, be real. Don’t give in to your fears and don’t suffer fools, or snobs, or posers whose projected insecurities and cowardice will eat your soul. Live and savor the incredible, complex beauty that is everywhere in front of you at every moment, because we’ve only so much time, to appreciate, to share, to BE.