The Great Leveler

Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire. – Jorge Luis Borges

Two weeks ago I was with my friends up near Parksville at our annual spa getaway.  As we were getting out of the car at the entrance to the resort, I spotted a dead bird lying on the side of the parking lot.  For a moment, the two of us who spotted it paused, and expressed that moment of “aw”.  It was freshly killed, although by what means I couldn’t determine, and if I had reached down to touch it, it would probably have still been warm.  Instead, I turned away and walked into the resort with my friends, more or less forgetting about it.

One of my favourite Buddhist articles, and one I turn to and re-read every now and then, is called “Time and Impermanence in Middle Way Buddhism and Modern Physics” . It’s an interesting, if somewhat mind boggling examination of the irreversible process of time and decay from both a physics and a Buddhist perspective, and ultimately it is a gentle reminder of the great leveler:  death.  Since the event of my mother’s passing when I wasn’t quite 15, I have been alternately curious and terrified of the idea of death.  In the western world, we tend to hide dead bodies, or when they are displayed, as in an open casket funeral, the bodies are dressed and made up in order to preserve something of the person that used to reside in them.  In other words, we try to make them look as if they might be sleeping, but not dead. We don’t like to think of death and we do everything to avoid it, both emotionally and physically.

At the age of 15 I had no frame of reference to make sense of my mother’s death;  it seemed only a cruel, dark and frightening event that I immediately began the process of trying to forget.  I have since experienced the passing of many people, some were close to me and others were simply acquaintances, and each time it happens, I am brought to that same emotional quagmire where there are no answers to any of the big questions.  It seems for many of us that the emptiness that comes with the death of a loved one always carries with it the same list of questions.  Why did that person die and where did they go, if anywhere?  Human beings are wired to wonder.  Some of us have our spiritual beliefs to fall back on when these life events throw us for a loop, and they give us comfort to some degree.  But even with all of those spiritual explanations to the mysteries of life, I’d venture to guess that the original questions still exist for many people, even if only at the back of their minds.  My mother’s death sent me on that inevitable spiritual quest and eventually I found my peace with it.  I’m grateful my children haven’t had to experience the same thing at such a young age.

But last year when we had to euthanize our cat, my daughters faced the end of a life for the first time.  Up to that point, they’d never gone through the loss of anyone dear to them, so this was as close as they’d been;  a sobering event and one that brought about the usual list of questions.  My daughters are both young adults, so they weren’t exactly asking me “Mommy, why?”, but I know they were both grappling with what it all meant.  I watched them grieve in a way they never had before, and became acutely aware of my own inability to take their pain away.

We buried Picard the cat in our back yard in a place where he used to love to lie in the summertime.  And for many days after we buried him, I wondered about what was happening to his body…perhaps a morbid line of thinking and disturbing to some degree, but it was also a strange kind of curiosity.  For a time I wondered to myself if maybe it would have been better to have him cremated; maybe to avoid the discomfort of having to imagine him decaying there.  But the decision to bury him had been made long before, and so he remained in the ground, a garden stone with his name on it marking his place.

The other day when I was cleaning the kitchen, I turned on the radio, and as I worked I listened to a CBC show called The Bottom Line with David Suzuki.  I’d never heard of it before, but my curiosity was piqued when I realized that this episode (Episode 8) was about the interconnectedness of our bodies and the earth around us.  They went into some detail about what happens to a dead body if it is left to the ravages of the outdoors, whether buried or not, over time.  As gross as it was, it was also quite fascinating, and it reminded me of that article I mentioned above.  But what was most interesting to me was the idea that the earth provides us with food and water and air in order to facilitate our lives, and when we die our bodies become the same for the creatures around us, whether we are buried or cremated.  You’ll have to listen to it to get the real picture, and I warn you, some of it is a bit grotesque.  But I especially liked Suzuki’s story of his father writing his own obituary and what he said in it, which was a kind of thread of thought that went through the whole episode.  Now you’ll have to listen for yourself :-), and in fact you can hear a podcast of that episode if you go to the link above.

One life changing experience for me took place in February of 2000, when a friend of mine passed away from colon cancer.  I was not there at the end of her life, but I did visit her body at the invitation of her family at her wake.  I had not been present when my mother passed away either, nor had I ever seen a dead body before, so this was definitely a new experience for me and I was pretty hesitant at first to enter her room.  It was kept cold by an open window, probably to slow down the decomposing process (sorry to be so graphic!), and she lay on a bed which was decorated with flowers and hearts because it was near Valentine’s Day.  I reluctantly sat down on a chair by her, and eventually decided I should say something to her, but it felt kind of strange talking to myself.  Which is really what I sensed I was doing.  After a respectable amount of time, I got up and left the room.  Days later it hit me that seeing her like that was very much like seeing a dead creature on the ground;  just an empty shell of something that used to be, about to disappear back into the earth.

That event changed a lot of things for me;  it gave me some of the answers that I had been seeking since my mother’s passing and set me on another course of self discovery.  Those two events, my mother’s and my friend’s passing, became like bookends to my spiritual journey, not that I feel my journey has ended, but I do feel more comfortable with the way I view it now.  To me life and death are a perpetual, critical cycle, filled with many smaller cycles, each in balance, each requiring the end of another one before, so that it can begin. I’d forgotten all about the dead bird until we were checking out of the resort at the end of our weekend.  The bird’s body was still there, but in those two days it had already become more or less skeletal, decomposing quite rapidly that short period of time;  going back to the earth that gave birth to it, giving its body back so that other creatures could be, for a short time, given life and allowed to thrive.


Be Willing To Change

There have been three significant times in my life when I’ve had to go through a transformation of some sort, and not necessarily because I wanted to! The first was when I was 14 and my mother died. The second was when I had my children. And the third is happening now.

The first two changes left me feeling completely alone, but they also lead to a liberation of sorts.

When my mother died from Hodgkin’s disease in 1972, I had no siblings and my father and I were almost strangers, since he had left most of the parenting to my mother. For a burgeoning teenager, facing the idea of death for the first time was terrifying enough, but to lose the one gentle, guiding light in my life was absolutely devastating. When you’re that age, the changes you face physically and emotionally are already overwhelming. Although I got through school okay, I struggled when my father remarried only two years after my mother died, another big change. So I think I did the only thing I could to take charge of my own life; I moved out at the age of 18 and from then on, took care of myself. Big Change Number One.

I lived alone for six or seven years until I eventually moved to another city, Victoria, and married my husband and had my first child, which brought on the second big change. Although I had my husband, who had no trouble adapting to being a father, I really had no one else around me to help me cope through the unbelievable transformation it takes to become a parent for the first time. There were no strong, female forces in my life; the female friends I had who had children were more like acquaintances, and my other good friends didn’t have children of their own. I had a long, drawn out bout of postpartum depression that lasted for months. Sometimes I think it actually lasted until I got pregnant with my second daughter a couple of years later, where my body kind of corrected itself hormonally. Being so alone in the dead of winter with a child for the first time, no siblings to share it with, no mother, not even in-laws because my husband’s parents didn’t live around us either, was very difficult. I felt like I had lost myself.

It’s funny how a female can be so focused on the marriage and kids idea at first. But what happens after that? I loved my kids to pieces, but was not content to just stay at home and be a mom. I had a part-time job, but most of what I made went into paying for daycare, so with the encouragement of my husband, I decided to quit that and get back into my music. At first I played pubs and coffee places and anything else I could find. I finally recorded some of my songs and sold my tapes whenever and wherever I could. And I started teaching guitar. That way I could still be home with my kids while I was teaching during the day, and my husband was home when I was out performing a few nights a month and whatever else I could find. Big Change Number Two.

And now I am at the precipice of Big Change Number Three.

I have been reading Dr. Christiane Northrup’s book “The Wisdom of Menopause” over the last while, having only discovered it after catching a PBS special of her’s by accident a few weeks ago. The book has been out for years, but for some reason it never caught my attention. I think I would have benefited greatly had I found it earlier in my peri-menopausal state, but nevertheless, it finally came to my attention and has already given me great insight into the changes that have been occurring in my life and the ones that are about to come.

So who will I be now?

In some ways, this feels like the most sober, conscious and calming change I am about to face. The last few years have been the tumultuous part, just as my mother’s death and my first child’s birth were for me. I am not sure that I knew I was re-inventing myself the first two times, but I am very conscious of that now.

Buddhist teachings have been my refuge in the past four or five years, and I am not sure I’d be as sane as I am now without them. They have given me a lot of insight into the workings of the mind and of the world, and some practical ways of thinking which have grounded me. They have also taught me about the process of rebirth.  Much of what the last few years have been about is letting go, a subject I have written about in past blogs. What I haven’t realized is how much I have to let go of my old “self”. Buddhism teaches you that there is no perpetual, permanent “you” to begin with, so there’s nothing to cling to anyway. But your ideas about yourself are the hardest to let go of. We like to categorize ourselves, to define our personalities and preferences in clean and tidy ways and that’s that. But sometimes our circumstances and the events in our lives force us to reevaluate: Is this really me? Do I really believe this?

I used to think that the idea of reinventing the self came mostly from those who were bored and restless. Maybe so. You could even say that living at home with my new stepmother made me bored and restless, or being at home with the kids did that. But I think it was a much larger and more powerful driving force, something I can’t really specifically identify; like giving birth, it’s more or less out of your control as the body goes into automatic, baby-making mode. It is, in fact, a rebirth.  You can’t stop it, it’s going to happen anyway so don’t resist!

In the last few weeks I have been able to remind myself of all that I have. And I have a lot. Dr. Northrup’s marriage fell apart as she went through menopause, mine is as strong as it has ever been. Some women need to find their true calling for the first time as they are heading towards menopause, I already found my calling after my children were born. I have no desire to be a rock star now 🙂 Thank goodness! Whatever I become, I will make the transition with my eyes wide open and carrying within me a real sense of peace.

Yesterday I went on my usual 2 kilometer walk. To my surprise and delight, it was almost balmy outside, the birds were happily singing and I could smell every fresh bloom as I passed it. I haven’t felt that happy in a long time.

Whoever the new me is, bring her on!


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It’s A Weird Wired World We Live In

Mark Twain photo portrait.Image via Wikipedia

Two stories caught my eye this week as I was perusing my usual news and info websites around the web.  The first was the story (ultimately proven to be a hoax) that Gordon Lightfoot had died.  And no, that is not a picture of Gordon to the right; he’s not that old 🙂

If you’re a Canadian over 40 (okay, maybe over 50), then Gordon Lightfoot is an icon and for the most part you couldn’t imagine Canada without him.  That’s not to say that he hasn’t had his share of problems and controversy over the years, but his music is inherently woven into the tapestry of Canadian culture like no other.  I went to see him a few years back when he came to Victoria.  Although I’ve played his songs and taught his songs to my guitar students for many years, I had never actually seen him perform in person.  He is what you might consider a kind of a shy performer.  He chats a little, but other than when he is singing, he seems almost uncomfortable in a way.  He battled with the bottle for many years, likely a habit he got into to overcome his discomfort on the stage.  But the one thing that stood out for me was that he plays all of those songs of his exactly as he did on his recordings…not one of them, no matter how old the song, was changed up even a little bit.  You find that a lot of performers tend to play songs a little differently as time goes by, probably out of boredom rather than anything else!  But not Gord.  There have been true reports over the last few years that he has had some health issues.  Which is probably why people believed the news.

As it turned out, rumours of his death were greatly exaggerated.  It’s not that death rumours about famous people weren’t flying around before the advent of the internet.  That quote (“rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated”) is a very old example of that;  Mark Twain (who is pictured above) was rumoured to have died, so a reporter was sent to investigate only to find that it was a cousin of Mark Twain’s who had actually passed away.  Bob Hope used that quote when he was rumoured to have died a couple of years before he actually did.

The difference now is that the web can spread a rumour faster than corn goes through a goose.  Most of us are not so naive as to believe everything we read, especially Twitter tweets.  But apparently a respected reporter did just that;  and when he saw a tweet about the passing of Gordon Lightfoot, because it came from what he thought was a trusted source, he passed it onto his readers and before you knew it the web was afire with the news.  And, of course, Lightfoot turned out to be very much alive.

So this is an interesting, if somewhat tenuous age of communication we’re experiencing.  Traditional media is competing with all kinds of bogus blogging and misinformation floating around with no truth filter to help us determine what we should and shouldn’t take as gospel.  How do they compete with fancy website names and popular social networks in a way that brings attention back to where people know they can trust what they’re reading?  The media can obviously try to embrace this new information age, and they have, but as in the example above, sometimes that gets them into more trouble than it’s worth.

This morning I saw another story that piqued my interest.  At a high school near Philadelphia, each student is given a MacBook laptop to use at school and at home for their studies.  How wonderful!  Naturally, each laptop has a webcam and the students can use the webcam to take pictures, etc., BUT there’s more to that feature than meets the eye!  A webcam is a window into your world, and I imagine some well-intentioned school superintendent saw an opportunity to monitor the kids’ use of the laptop and didn’t think anything more of it.  You can see that one turning into a scandal in no time.

When one of the students received a notice from the assistant principal saying that he had been using the laptop for “improper behaviour”, the student filed a civil complaint.  That’s when everyone became aware of this “security feature” installed on each laptop.  The original idea was to be able to find the laptop if it was lost or stolen, but they were also using it to monitor the student’s use of it.  So what exactly would they be able to see when the laptop is on in a girl’s bedroom, for instance?  A scandal indeed.

Yesterday I ran into trouble with my desktop computer and finally had to take it into the shop to have it looked at.  As I was standing in line, the fellow in front of me, packing his Dell desktop, started to explain a problem he was having with it.  The technician told him that it sounded like a computer virus.  But the owner insisted that he had security up the yin yang and it couldn’t be that.  Why, just the other day a window popped up telling him he had a particular virus and all he had to do was download this program which would get rid of it!  Most of you (I hope) recognize his error.  For those of you who don’t, this pop-up he saw was the virus itself, and when he clicked onto it, what he was doing was installing the virus on his computer.

I have friends on Facebook who join groups that promise everything:  join that group and win a free computer, join this group and a dollar will go to Haiti, join another group and protest the fact that Facebook is going to start charging us to be members soon.  All of these groups are bogus, but people join every one of them and try to encourage me and all of their other friends to join too.  It happens again and again.  Age doesn’t even seem to be a factor;  young and old fall into the same naive traps over and over. You might laugh, but let’s face it;  the internet is a big world and we can’t possibly know everything about it.  Only the most tech-savvy computer nerds really see the majority of what is going on.  More than ever, we have to remember not to trust everything we read on the web, to ask questions before we buy or install or accept “free” anything, and to try not to be so naive. 

If we do that, then the weird wired world we live in can also become quite wonderful!


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