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A Scholar’s Search for Fearlessness
Alternative title: Being 60: On Death & Dating
Table of Contents
Section I: Death: A Passage through Time
2 Prelude: Becoming 60
Chapter 1: Facing Death & Aging: From Anxiety to Equanimity Chapter 2: A Spiritual Quest in India: A Student of Death Chapter 3: Of Mothers, Daughters, Fairytales, and Death Chapter 4: How I Learned to Read the Wall Street Journal: Money, The Market, and my Mother, A Love Story
Section II: Dating: The Problem might not be the Prince Chapter 5: Melodrama in Morocco: ‘Deep Sixtied’ Chapter 6: Sea Ranch, California & the Buddha. Chapter 7: An Asian Odyssey: Buddhist Boot Camp Chapter 8: High Drama in the Himalayas: On the Road in Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan Chapter 9: Southeast Asia: The Silence of History Chapter 10: A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Panama Chapter 11: An Old Girl Can Learn New Tricks: China, the Market, and Me. Epilogue: Footnotes Author Now: Being 60 . . . or 70 or . . .
3 ***** Although personal experience is used as illustration, this book is neither autobiography nor memoir. Far too many encounters and people are missing to constitute a life. The highly selective focus is on moments of learning about fear and moving through its anxiety. So it’s about 5% of a life. Is it self-help? Yes. Particularly because the goal is to find and nurture the inner self. Is it how-to? Yes. Because it relies on the updated yet ancient teachings of great beings who reveal ways to deal with fear and other emotions. But it is intimate and private rather than objective and professional, a tale told by an amateur. The structure is a search for fearlessness through events, books, countries, and finally the lense of a new, late in life love affair. And it is told from the point of view of a 60 year old woman, a feminist media scholar and author of seven books, and a single mother, unmarried for 25 years, who reveals her struggles with a late-in-life relationship, along with the self insights and happiness that emerged from confronting fear and embracing love. It is a tale of mother love and of romance, including love at first sight and travel to exotic places like an ashram in India, Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, the remote, primitive regions of Myanmar (Burma), Vietnam, Laos, and China. It is a book which anyone who has had fear about losing a child, caring for ill and dying parents, death, aging and growing old, money, and finally, men and relationships, will understand.
Along the way, Distinguished Professor Mellencamp shares her many great teachers – keeping their invaluable words intact so that they may be reapplied to other lives. Happiness is Not an Accident is a creative encyclopedia of great spiritual writers, including many women, whose words are guides through life’s fears.
And it is a book which consistently reveals the adventure and joy of being 60, a secret that has been kept from younger women for generations. As the Epilogue says:
“Being something, anything, is to fully inhabit, or embody . . . whatever, without hedges, or qualms or self-doubt. It is a state without equivocation. Being 60 is to embrace all the aches, wrinkles, intelligence and experience that have accrued in six decades. Being 60 is facing the last part of life with an attitude – of assertion and acceptance, of curiosity and humility, of adventure and retreat, all dosed with humor. Being 60 is prime time.”
4 PRELUDE: Becoming 60
I always felt ten years behind in my adult life – achieving at 50 what men do at 40. Only in my 50s, did I learn to value myself and my thoughts accurately. Although I had many essays published, only in my 50s did I write my own books, becoming an author, and more importantly, feeling some authority. I think this time lag is true for many women, particularly those who are also mothers. It took time for women of my generation, girls in the 1940s and 1950s, women and mothers in the 1960s and 1970s, to find and then pro/claim 1 their talents. Self worth, like economic equality, was an elusive value. Many of us were the best students in the class, from grade school through graduate school. Although we learned how to study and to work, we weren’t taught to have professional careers; instead, we had jobs. And there is a big difference. This paradox trained us to be wives and to support our husbands’ ambitions as if they were our own. But they are not. A career, like education, cannot be given away, it cannot really be shared equally -- although this is what the Clintons are trying to do by invoking Hillary’s experience as first lady/wife. (See Addendum for more on contradiction.) Despite this double bind – be smart, not ambitious -- I became an independent woman with an academic career as a feminist media scholar, known for speaking up, irreverently so, and lecturing around the world. My divorce in 1976 was my economic incentive. My inspiration came from my two children who were adorable and superb students. They are wonderful, accomplished human beings, now in their thirties, with professional careers and families. I eventually lived in a beautiful condominium in a gracious estate built by a German beer baron in 1907 on Lake Michigan, walked a few blocks to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where, as a Distinguished Professor, I taught film history. I took my two Cairn Terriers to my lectures; they loved college students, especially the snacks in their backpacks, as did I. Work involved re-viewing a Hitchcock thriller or a Buster Keaton comedy or a German Expressionist or Japanese film or attending an international conference with good friends. Sometimes I had to pinch myself. And I could deduct “going to the movies” from my taxes. I loved my work. I ended up with a magnificent life. It was a self-made professional life – for I did not have a PhD. I became a Professor (Associate, then Full) and was appointed a Distinguished Professor on the basis of my writing and international reputation 2, a rare achievement, particularly for a woman (and one who taught movies, just crass popular culture for many, and was [and is] a feminist), in a university system in which only 2% of Full Professors were women. Unlike this rarified percentage, I was also self-taught. I had only one film course in graduate school – receiving a Masters degree in Communication. In a highly professional world of hierarchical credentials, I was, early on, a rank amateur and had to run very fast to keep up. It took years for me to believe that I had even adequate knowledge. Academia can be exhausting – for there truly is no end to knowledge.
5 During my 50s, my quest was to conquer fear – many of which had been dormant, or unconscious, unnamed for years but there as anxiety or high drama or just emotional chaos. Walking toward fear by leaning into the pain became a challenge, almost like an obstacle course I was learning to master. Each time, I would successfully emerge on the other side, stronger, happier. I didn’t realize then how much of my intellectual writing also concerned fear – that beneath the patina of scholarship, I was writing about my life, trying to understand my emotions. I began with writing a book about the ways television creates anxiety, High Anxiety: Catastrophe, Scandal, Age & Comedy, a very fat book, and ended, books and experiences later, with a project to write about death. Becoming 60 involved dealing with archaic, and displaced, and real fear, particularly the fear of death. When I was ready, and open to learn, I found teachers everywhere. During my 50s, my Siddha Yoga meditation practice helped me deal with my son’s diagnosis of cardiomyopathy at the same time as I faced the long illnesses and deaths of my parents. I would also learn about investing in the stock market; my mother was my teacher. Later, in my 60s, came knowledge of emotions and relational dynamics via Buddhism and the concepts of the Swiss psychoanalyst, Carl Jung. I call these my amateur knowledges. Amateur knowledge comes from experience, from the ordinary and the everyday, and, like the Latin root of amateur, amo, it has love at its core. Acquisition of this kind of knowledge was precipitated by trauma, along with fear. Initially the knowledge is a means of survival – a lifeline -- and then of healing; eventually it becomes a way of life that leads to contentment, the highest form of happiness. My awareness of death came in stages – beginning in my late 40s. The first form death took was highly amorphous, as fear and anxiety -- Fearing Death. Then death became a very real and unexpected drama. I was there as my father died of botched, emergency stomach surgery. The second form of death was Facing Death. As in life, my father was my teacher. I didn’t want to look away from what was happening, I wanted to see death. During this brief period and then throughout the seven year deathwatch for my mother, who had bone cancer, I began to read about death, particularly Eastern Philosophy. As I became a student of death, death became a part of my life, at least intellectually so. This knowledge was reassuring, comforting, not frightening; acknowledgement began to quell my fear. I wanted to lighten my mother’s fear of excruciating pain and impending death by talking and reading about others’ experiences. Rather than avoid or deny or pretend, Studying (or Acknowledging) Death became a spiritual practice for us. I read, she listened, and then we talked. I learned more from her than she did from me. The more I contemplated death, others and my own, I became simultaneously aware of a vast interior world, my inner self. It was made up of gratitude and joy; it was a source of supreme contentment and profound energy; within me was a universe infinitely greater than anything I had imagined, even as a fanciful child. (Think of 2001 or Contact for just a tiny glimpse.) I sensed that this enveloping space was timeless, eternal.
6 When my mother died, I was ready and became a witness to the process. In this fourth stage of awareness, death was a palpable entity, a compressed, intense event with a beginning and ending. Death was different from dying. While dying is constant and erratic, death arrived with a flourish and left in silence, in a clearly demarked time. Meeting Death was a liberation for my mother, literally a freeing of the spirit from the confines of the body. Perhaps the most liberating aspect of becoming 60 is my awareness of death – which reminds me to live well and not to waste any more moments in negativity, or fear, or anxiety. These preparatory years for 60 were intense, destructive and productive – spiritually and intellectually, personally and professionally. Academic subjects overlapped with private experiences in a mix of life imitating art, or something of that nature. The first part of this book is about the past, about my family and about my professional life, including some thoughts about media culture and aging women. It is about middle age, about becoming . . . unafraid, or better, fearless. Then, fourteen dateless years later, in 1999, when I thought I had faced my last and greatest fear, death, I had a brief relationship, meeting Jonathan one year later, only two weeks after I turned 60, and very soon beginning a committed relationship. Fear and anxiety again! . . . of aging, of emotional intimacy, of surrendering my will to be right, of a lifetime commitment with no back door escape hatch, and the sheer hard work that a deep relationship took. It was as if I had to begin my spiritual practices all over again – this time focusing on my reactions to another as much as my actions. I also needed to develop the understanding, trust, and compassion for men that I had for women. Just as feminism had made me stronger intellectually, my relationship with Jonathan made me stronger emotionally, forcing me to put my spiritual beliefs into everyday practice. I shifted from what my psychoanalyst, Dr. John Beebe, called an “ethics of justice” to an “ethics of caring.” This is such a lovely concept. I used to believe that my supreme achievement in life was learning the great pleasures of being alone, when I was in my forties and fifties. Now I know better – being together, like being 60, takes surrender, humility, tolerance, and acceptance – the truly difficult virtues. There is no room for a big or solitary ego in a loving relationship. Above all a true partnership takes compassion – being able to listen, to inhabit, for just a few moments, another’s point of view. While I knew a lot about women, I knew virtually nothing about men – they were stick figures to me. Little did I know about their tender egos, deep sensitivities, or desire to care for others. I always thought my son was an exception, surrounded as he was by females. Now I know that his gentleness is closer to the rule. Being 60 . . . initially a difficult number. Old age begins here, I think, although we stretch middle age out each decade, disguising ourselves by masquerade or cosmetic surgery. Contemporary culture has, until recently, minor interest in 60 year old women, although this is finally changing as older women become more visible and audible. Born the same year I was, 1941, Julie Christie is luminously beautiful, wrinkled and sunspotted, at 66, in Away From Her, playing a decisive woman who, despite her advancing
7 Alzheimer’s, determines her own destiny, with a bit of ironic justice towards her formerly philandering professor/husband. The same year, at 66, that she was nominated for her second Oscar and won the Screen Actors Guild Award, she married for the first time, perhaps deciding that she finally knew enough to risk it. At 60, Hillary Clinton has never looked better than during the hundreds of hours of television campaign coverage in 2007/2008. Unlike Christie, her face is smooth, unlined, taking her down to more like the late 40s. Although she, like Nancy Pelosi at 68, Speaker of the House, has had “work” and wears great makeup, both women look terrific, healthy, and beautiful. But it is not their appearance that is so unusual; it is their authority and achievement – Speaker of the House and Senator/Presidential Candidate -their total life’s work, that has been honored. Like these powerful and famous women, I have discovered that being 60 can be a time of redemption and possibility -- when we can take credit for everything we have learned and lived, our sufferings and celebrations, our successes and failures alike. This is a revolution of acknowledgement and awareness of the importance of our lives en Toto. It results in the greatest freedom, interior freedom, and the exhilarating belief that anything except youth, thank God, is possible. Unlike these exceptional women, I am living an out-of-the-way life, without fame or professional aspirations. For me, stepping aside to let the next generation have their turn seemed age appropriate. Although I now live in a small town in northern California, Sea Ranch, my world continues to expand. Nobody told me that being 60 would be so completely delightful, so filled with insight and elated contentment. I wonder why this has been such a well kept secret for women. If we knew this time of authority was coming, would we become too powerful? Too independent? Too happy? Is Hillary happy? Usually what we know of others’ lives is a surface knowledge, with sometimes shiny boundaries concealing the inner life, its true feelings. In these pages, I have gone beneath my surface – of being a successful professional, living a life of adventure and accomplishment, a life that has been surrounded by loving and talented family members, particularly my two adult children, Rob and Dae. On the surface, mine was a close to perfect life – except for the fear -- sometimes low grade, sometimes panic, and always painful -- that threatened to derail any serenity. At first I didn’t recognized my anxiety as fear, coming from within me. But as I began to identify particular fears, to lean into the pain rather than try and escape it, to take full responsibility for my inner state, to stop blaming others, and to find great teachers, some in books and others in person, fear subsided and was replaced by happiness – which I have learned is not an accident. It takes work. I am happier now than I dreamed possible. So I know the teachings in this book work, completely. Are you afraid? Ashamed of being afraid? Unaware of your fear? This might just be a book for you.
From Anxiety to Equanimity: Facing Death and Aging
A Parable I became an old woman suddenly, accidentally, February 15, 1996. I was walking my Cairn Terrier, BP (for Buster Keaton), through the back trails of Lake Park, near the University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee, where I taught film courses. It was a sunny, subzero morning. Then, without warning, I was no longer in this scene. Like my dog's namesake, I had taken a pratfall and landed on my head, receiving a deep gash. I was unconscious for some time in the snow, bleeding, and then, intermittently, for a week in the hospital. When I momentarily came to, the voice of a paramedic was concerned that I remember my name. I couldn't. (They would ID me from my dog's collar. My fingers were clenched on his leash. His barking led the police to my body, concealed by the early morning snow and my white parka.) Later, the voice of an emergency room MD asked me to lift my shoulders. I couldn't. Nor could I move any part of my body. Oh my god! I can’t move my legs! Thick fear began to coagulate in my cells, especially my knees. As the anxiety spread, I closed my eyes, focused on my breath, on inhalation, then exhalation. With this meditation ritual, my mind turned inward and became calm, quiet. Fear receded, and never came back during the days in the hospital that followed. Through some amazing grace, I was not identified with my body and the anxiety and fear that come with that identification. (Good thing, too, because I was not wearing make-up that morning and had not washed my hair. This would be my unkempt state for six days. Being semi-conscious did have its advantages . . . I never went anywhere without makeup or hairspray. I was, however, perfectly dressed for a fall in subzero weather, wearing a thick headband and hood which cushioned my head. My heavy parka and silk long johns protected the rest of my body from the hours in the cold.) I was in my body, but I was not my body. I was peering out of my eyes, watching, rather like looking through the face mask of a deep sea diver. No matter what happened on the outside, a parameter that now included the immobile shell of my physical body, I was safe inside. My body was a space suit, or a self-propelling vehicle now broken. While my friends were curious and upset about the events of the fall (the police suspecting a mugging because of the deep gash in my head), what fascinated me was my inner state of being a witness to outer events. I was involved, and in some pain, but detached. (In 2001, the mystery, ultimately medical not criminal, was solved after another surprise event in a supermarket in New York City, diagnosed after two weeks at
9 the Mayo Clinic not as epilepsy but as a rare pancreas disorder, but that’s another tale, one of dating.) But what does this story have to do with being old? (Me? Old?) After ambulancing me to the hospital, the rescue squad had taken my dog, BP, to the humane society for safe-keeping. When my sister, Nancy, picked him up, she was given a manila envelope containing his sweater. She gave me the envelope six weeks later, only after she decided I was sufficiently recovered. On it was written, "Elderly owner in hospital." My nameless body had been given an identity -- “elderly!” Although "elderly" was a new adjective for me, my first thought was of the wisdom and status accorded Elders in Native American cultures. My second thoughts were less noble. How could I be elderly? Did I look that bad without eyeliner? (Notice the false presumption that to look old is to look bad.) Not only was my 81 year old mother still giving daily counsel, but so was her mother, my grandmother, very alert at the age of 101. Although I was a mother, with children in their mid-twenties, I was also a dutiful daughter and granddaughter. How many elders can one family have? Our place in this familial time line, along with our bodies, our faces and organs, delineates age, an archeology as much as a chronology. (Although I was 55, I just didn’t look all that old, or even just plain old; in fact, I was still thin, healthy, in shape, stylish, and looked pretty terrific, or so I believed.) One minute I was a middle-aged professor, taking a walk, the next I was elderly, unable to move. This split second transition was an effortless passage, without forewarning or fear, from one state of awareness to another. In each state, something within, what Germaine Greer, the British feminist, calls our "inner landscape," and Carl Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst, after ancient Sanskrit scriptures, calls the Self, remained the same. This inner space was vast, tranquil, and very still. (Was this a sneak preview of death? If so, death was not to be feared.) But it had taken me years to experience this inner tranquility. I changed the way I thought -- not for lofty reasons, but out of searing panic that made my nerves, and my heart, raw.
In Life It began as a mother's nightmare. In 1987, my brilliant and gentle son, Rob, then 18, and home from college for vacation, was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy -- a degeneration of the heart muscle. There was no explanation and no cure other than an eventual heart transplant. 3 While Rob's life had been an ongoing series of medical crises, with forty-one broken bones from osteogenesis imperfecta and several surgeries, this was primordial. God had upped the ante to live or die. I can still recall the pounding, constricting terror I felt when I walked down the hospital corridor to his room each day. I tried to pretend I wasn’t literally “panic stricken.” But I was. At night I would sit bolt upright in bed, awakened by skin-crawling fear.
10 My anxiety was exacerbated by the lack of diagnosis and prognosis. This was a story without origin, without linear progress (improvement or cure), without cause-effect logic, without closure, a story without a future. This catastrophe had no time frame -- it could be weeks, years, even decades. It was a continuous, indeterminate crisis, a contradiction in terms. Paralyzed by fear, I counted on my mind, ironically enough, to get me through. 4 I turned my frantic thoughts to intellectual sources for consolation. I read Sigmund Freud then Walter Benjamin, the German cultural critic, and Rene Thom, the French mathematical theorist, on catastrophe, shock and anxiety. It all made perfect sense. My life had resembled Thom's words: "Our everyday may be a tissue of ordinary catastrophes, but our death is a generalized catastrophe." 5 My reaction to Rob's initial diagnosis was textbook Freud. As the doctor spoke, I began to feel panic. Anxiety is very physical. I remember visually receding, down a long, narrow wind tunnel. Sound became barely audible. My body was separated from reality as if encased in thick glass. My senses were sealed off. Only my eyes allowed the real in, and if I closed them, I was shielded from bombardment. It was like floating in an air-proof bubble. Fear and anxiety, which were almost unbearable, had, for the moment, been physically mediated. 6 A shield, like a cellophane membrane, distanced me from the world and from my own senses. Then it blanketed me in exhaustion. I slept for two days, afraid to wake up. If I didn't open my eyes, this painful trauma would go away. (The connections among perception, knowledge, and pain were unstable. The regression back to early childhood confusion between presence, absence, and perception – kids hiding by covering their eyes – was a momentary escape.) As Freud put it, I had "two reactions to real [as distinguished from neurotic] danger"; the first was "an affective reaction, an outbreak of anxiety," the other was "a protective action." 7 Or as Samuel Weber, the cultural critic said, the shield is porous. It has a "double function" which protects us "against excess excitation . . . and also transmits excitation from the outside to the inside of the organism." 8 This experience, or figure, of being encased in an outer covering or shield was comparable to my fall in the park but without the self-awareness or understanding. I had not yet discovered Greer's "inner landscape." "I" was hollow. There was no comfort or safety inside, or anywhere. Fear and danger were the only signals coming from everywhere. Thus, the shield that protected me was also my problem -- an outer crust where all my fear, guilt, attachments, identifications, addictions, and obsessions had accumulated. "I" was a shell of inherited fear about to crack. In Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety (1926), a late Freudian text and one long overlooked by contemporary cultural theory, anxiety was a physical response to a danger situation, real or remembered, fictive or factual. The amount of stimulation rises to an unpleasurable level without being mastered or discharged. (137) Anxiety is a situation of helplessness, predicated on "missing someone who is loved and longed for." "Longing turns into anxiety." (136) Thoughts of Rob, memories really, would trigger my original panic. Emotion was inseparable from memory. As Freud had said, every affect (or
11 emotion) was reminiscence. (133) (Although I realize that Freud is, perhaps fatally, out of style, I love this short thought.) One solace for my anxiety, my helplessness, was to seek further information -doing research on heart transplants and talking with medical specialists. Information was consoling, temporarily. But science offered neither hope nor solution. Because I couldn't escape or quiet my thoughts, I sublimated, displaced, avoided, whatever: I wrote a book, High Anxiety: Catastrophe, Scandal, Age, and Comedy, about catastrophic, obsessive logic, with an analysis of television, electronic culture, as both shock and shield. 9 Although I included a cancer scare, a medical misdiagnosis, in the first pages, the book ignores the true catastrophe, Rob’s cardiomyopathy, which is at its core. To be honest, I don't think I saw the connection until the manuscript was finished two years later, in 1990. It was like the recovery parable of an elephant in the living room. The sagging floor and cracks in the wall are attributed to everything except the elephant. In retrospect, what intrigues me is this denial, even repudiation, of the personal experience of a crisis. For the longer span of my life, intimately and intellectually, I valued crisis and discontinuity (along with the rational assurances of science). The celebrated, remembered events of history, politics, art, and my daily life came from the exceptional, the extraordinary, the upsetting, not the reassuring, the everyday. 10 Crises made life more exciting. I created high drama, even chaos, in personal affairs. Like so many visual culture critics, my aesthetic came from events that rocked universities in the 1960s, an era of social causes and political movements forged in crises. I wanted history, at least the way we write history, to change – by including women and their points of view, along with people of color. And shock and discontinuity were central, for many theorists, to changing history. In fact, crisis in the form of battles and wars is the primary story of history itself – starring men and primarily written by men. Like other early boomers born to Cold War logic and nuclear fear -- which held out a Soviet attack as imminent danger to 1950s U.S. suburbia, escalated by civil defense alerts in the 1960s, I had been taught to think catastrophically – globally, historically, and personally. Later, as a good consumer, I had also learned obsessive thought, logic of more; the same was not good enough. The gauge of “enough” always climbed higher, never getting or achieving “enough.” The logic inevitably turns against the self – “I” can never be enough. The similarity between the military, corporate and psychoanalytic logics of obsession, all driven by fear, is truly uncanny. Although events in the world can be the trigger, our thoughts perpetuate, exaggerate, and even create fear. In 2003, the U.S. attacked another country, Iraq, based on fear, not evidence – that the country had nuclear capabilities and “weapons of mass destruction.” The stock market, presumed to be rational like the military, is continually roiled by fear, which spreads among Wall Street brokers like a contagious virus.
12 Gradually I realized that anxiety production had imploded even further -- the logic of crisis has been applied to virtually anything. Now the same structure of thought can apply to a war, an earthquake, a faculty meeting, being late, being over-weight, being forty, or sixty, and growing old. We have been trained to think obsessively, compulsively -- as the norm, not the exception. At least this was true for me. And it dovetailed perfectly with my addiction. I think it is the way many women in our culture view the process of aging -- dealing with it only by denial or repudiation – which can take many forms, particularly cosmetic surgery and various injection procedures like Botox or Restylane. This ritual of pain can become obsessive, a costly compulsion, and hence endless (except for death – and then there is the mortician, skilled in masquerade, in the art of concealment). The ritual is paradoxical – to handle the psychic and social trauma of aging, one inflicts physical trauma on the body, especially the face – the sensory instrument which sees our aging representation, our own face, and then compares it to other images. The trauma becomes real; yet we are in control, it is self-inflicted; we pay astronomical amounts for the pain, for the cutting, the laser burning, the injecting. It is deeply masochistic. To some degree, the pleasure is derived from, or measured by, the pain – which is expensive and voluntarily received. Ironically, the best cosmetic surgery or treatment will remain invisible, unnoticeable, a secret of aging 11 As the Candace Bergen mother/character in The Women (2008) remarks while swathed in bandages from a facelift: “I am going through all of this only to be told that I look rested?” Margaret Gullette, an early scholar of aging, admonishes feminism to see aging as a cultural (not merely natural) process and to bring age into visibility as feminism did with gender. She forcibly asserts that "in age changes, negative alterations become visible not because a body ages by nature, but because it is aged by culture." Many of us have internalized ageism as story and as biology. The story is one of decline that is hidden in its "foundation in the body." "Decline narrative used to make me feel helpless. Now that I see it as narrative, it offends me." 12 Gullette's argument points to the close connection between lives and stories; representations can have very real effects. Along with family legends and anecdotes, particularly important are the stories that we learn to tell about ourselves from popular culture. Representations cannot be distinguished from their reception. Our stories, our reminiscences, create the tone of our lives. Our thoughts were and are determining our reality, our experience, of old age. The 2008 year-long media drama of Hillary Clinton campaigning for the Presidency of the U.S. will have incalculable long term effects on the way 60 year old women see themselves and each other, along with changing the very perception of what being sixty represents. For this campaign, unlike those of her husband, she has found a look, a style of hair, makeup, and clothing (not fashion) that is consistently her own. Throughout the long campaign, she looked good – her campaign promoted her as the sum total of all her life experiences. The passage of time was portrayed as her gain, not her loss as is the usual portrayal.
13 Women's "loss" of youth as if it were a tangible object -- not a productive time, not a gain of insight, knowledge, and experience -- measured by our faces and bodies, is a manufactured fear that verges on a national obsession-compulsion. Obsession, based on reproaches, guilt and shame, is applicable to the aging body. Physical changes linked to sexual attractiveness become the anxieties and fears that drive the marketing of costly age remedies. This nexus of personal fears locates our identity in our bodily image, in our appearance, and in our relation to the material world. Marketing turns obsession into normality by concealing the cultural as the natural. That our standard comes from the movies, from popular culture, that it is historical and therefore changes, is forgotten. If all the female stars of movies suddenly had lines and wrinkles, and were over 40, even 30 (to say nothing of 50, 60, and 70!) which has never been true of Hollywood, the ideal would change. From Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford on, in their early teens cast as leads in silent film because they had no wrinkles, the female face has been perfectly smooth, high-lighted and air-brushed, vastly different from male faces, wherein wrinkles and even pouches can represent character. Marlene Dietrich’s face was illuminated by a complex lighting apparatus to such perfection that she couldn’t move out of a small area of onscreen space – without her high cheekbones vanishing. John Wayne rode off into a glorious, infinite horizon. Dietrich, like so many women, was confined to small spaces, minimal movement, while cowboys roamed the open landscape. For middle aging baby boomers, what is missed, what is longed for, is the youthful self. What is feared is growing up, as well as growing old. Other anxieties, fears, and frights of aging are more conscious and less uncanny – being alone, economic insecurity, dependency on others, immobility, loss of self determinacy, pain and illness. Then there is being undesirable to men. And, of course, the classic, being dumped for a younger woman. This is the premise of the 1996 film, The First Wives' Club (directed by Hugh Wilson). Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton, and Bette Midler, "acting their age," the midforties, reunite at the funeral of a college friend who committed suicide. Her husband left her for a younger woman. The same fate has befallen her three college friends. Hawn's movie producer husband has left her for a young actress, Midler's electronics entrepreneur, for his young secretary; and Keaton's advertising executive for their mutual therapist. These women join together and uncover information that they use to extract "justice" from their former husbands. They take Ivana Trump literally: they don't get mad, or even, they get everything! And they are very funny along the way, all three being/acting the comic persona they each perfected in previous films. The delight of the film is watching these three powerful women, who have become producers and directors with real influence in Hollywood, talking about the double standards of age. For me, it was deeply moving to watch these three comic performers create so much positive energy together as friends. Along with women over thirty, female friendship has been a rarity for Hollywood cinema, obsessed with the youthful couple and romance or male buddies as its narrative has been for over 100 years.
14 Eight years later, Diane Keaton, in her fifties, returns in a romantic comedy for older folks – this time with a comic nude scene – Something’s Gotta Give. She plays a famous, wealthy, stylish yet unpretentious Broadway playwright, living happily alone in a gorgeous summer house in the Hamptons. The woman and the house are elegant, tasteful and comfortable – in classic, soft beige just like her beautifully tailored clothes. Books and art create an aura of intelligence and high style. Two men fall in love with her – a sixty something Jack Nicholson paunchy balding cigar-smoking music/mogul womanizer currently dating her gorgeous daughter, Amanda Peet, and a late thirties Keanu Reeves one-woman slim tight-bodied medical doctor who knows and loves her work and takes her to Paris. In the movie’s end, on the Seine in Paris, Keaton picks Nicholson (along with rudely dumping Reeves) – a choice that baffled many older women in the audience. In real life, shortly after the film’s release, Keaton was rumored to be dating Reeves, after a few dates with Nicholson. But the ending aside . . . a fifty year old woman is not only the star, but she is the lead in a romantic comedy, a rare sighting indeed. Her love scenes with Reeves are “normal,” not aberrant. Another radical element of the film is Keaton’s face – which has lines and wrinkles; although minimal, there in the close-ups, they are not airbrushed or highlighted or surgically removed (the latter noted regularly in all the tabloids). She is in her fifties and it shows, quite beautifully, if minuscule. Granted, she has no gray hairs and is pencil thin – she is not your ordinary fifty-year old woman. She could pass for thirty – the new double standard. Women can now be fifty, but they must look thirty. But just compare this portrait to Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard and the distance is remarkable. We have come a long way, baby. For this woman is not only living and working as a playwright productively alone, with loving relationships with her sister and her daughter, she is attractive and desirable to men, due to her achievements and success as well as her appearance. OK, granted that seeing her fifty-year old naked body is the film’s tantalizing scene as well as the teasing trailer, her body looks great! Unlike Jack Nicholson’s saggy butt which hangs out in the movie. His fleshy body is the real scandal but this unappetizing sight is just sweet comedy. Sunset Boulevard is the classical film portrayal of aging as trauma for women. The screenplay focuses on a star of silent cinema, Norma Desmond, who has enclosed herself in her dark mansion, watching her old silent films. Because Gloria Swanson was a big star of silent films, these scenes are poignant, particularly for a film professor like me. She fantasizes a comeback and is writing a screenplay about Salome for her return. Billy Wilder and Charlie Brackett won an academy award for their original screenplay, which was first offered to Mae West. Then Mary Pickford decided that the seduction of a younger man was not appropriate for her image. The part was finally offered to Gloria Swanson, appalled that she had to test for the role. Like Pickford, the majority of Swanson’s highly stylized performances were in silent cinema, including the films she produced under the aegis of Joseph Kennedy during her affair with him. Swanson retired from films in 1934, when she was 37. She was 52 when she began working on Sunset Boulevard – by cinema’s double standards, making her almost ancient for a female star.
15 Not only is Swanson/Desmond enclosed in her past stardom and trapped by her own narcissism, she doesn’t look a day over 40. In cameo appearances, Cecille B. DeMille and Erich Von Stroheim, both directors of silent films, look light years older than Swanson – particularly the bald, paunchy DeMille, who makes an appearance as himself, a famous film director. These old men are productive and working while her desires to work on her screenplay and make her own movie are represented as pathetic vanity, self delusion bordering on insanity or monstrosity. No one takes Desmond’s screenplay seriously. Like a female starring in a film at the age of 53, her screenplay is the film’s derided joke, grotesque. In order to entrap a younger handsome screenwriter who is broke -- William Holden as Joe Gillis -- and who wandered into her lair when escaping debt collectors, she hires him to help her rewrite her screenplay, moves him into her mansion, bribes him with expensive gifts, tries to seduce him, and attempts suicide to seal her need for him. Later, he will be rescued by a younger woman, Susan, a sweet young thing and a script reader for a big studio who wants to work with him on a script he had submitted. They begin to meet and work on his screenplay. Susan, like Norma, falls in love with the passive to whining failure. Perhaps the film’s real crime is that Norma wanted to be the author, whereas Susan was content to work on Joe’s screenplay. Women have not been allowed such brazen ambition in the movies, at least without consequences, often death or murder. Two women fighting over the same man is a familiar scenario for cinema. Just take Singin’ in the Rain, for example. However, usually the star, not a supporting player, ends up with the guy, the other star. But in this film that would be an improper couple – the older woman with a younger man – and hence it cannot be the film’s ending. Unlike Keaton and Reeves, however, the relationship between them is represented as grotesque, improper, almost incestuous. But just reverse the scene to the older man with the much younger woman, say Fred Astaire with Leslie Caron, or Gene Kelly with Debbie Reynolds, and the double standard of age applied to women in cinema becomes apparent. As women age in the movies, they become grotesque and pathetic; men become powerful and attractive. The older woman is also measured against the younger woman, the proper partner for Joe Gillis/Holden. While Norma is all masquerade, makeup, posturing, and melodramatic affectation, the younger woman is natural, open, and honest. She is real. Norma wears a facial harness and various patients on her face – knowing the importance of the close-up and knowing that wrinkles on women were not acceptable. Norma Desmond is silent cinema and hence, like her faded mansion and classic cars, the past; the young woman is talking cinema, the present. Norma is death, while Susan is life. Norma is just too old to be a movie star, or a desirable woman. Rather than this old scenario of two women desiring and fighting over the same man, I can see another possibility – they work together rather than compete for the man. Rather than killing the young, male screenwriter in a fit of jealousy, the stark melodramatic scene that opens Sunset Boulevard, Norma hires the young woman to
16 work on Salome with her. Then they co-produce a successful film about women pioneers in the silent cinema days – causing a flood of women to become interested in filmmaking. There were role models in film history – they just didn’t make it to the history books until recently. Great ensemble and starring roles are written for women over 40. Perhaps even 50 or 60 or even 70. Amazing! (Just think of Julie Christie in the 2007 film, Away From Her.) Rather than star in her film, Swanson becomes the director. She hires her old friend, Pickford, for the lead. Mae West makes a pivotal cameo appearance. Von Stroheim has retired, along with DeMille. The screenplay tells great stories about their idiosyncrasies and affectations. The male screenwriter, the William Holden character, vanishes into obscurity – his manipulative and whining character began to irritate the film’s producers. Although he is technically dead, shot in the opening scene, floating face down in the swimming pool, Sunset Boulevard is told from his point of view. In the new film, Desmond’s Desire, the director’s voice tells the tale. The whining, judgmental voice-over that judges women as too old, too pathetic, too vain, telling the story of women’s aging as a tale of decline, is silenced. Rather than the close-up of Swanson as a deranged murderer, completely mad, the film concludes with a close-up of Pickford, looking out at the audience, smiling, then laughing, the soft lines on her face testifying to the wisdom and character of her age, another stage of beauty, inflected as it now is by acceptance, seasoned by knowledge and experience. This is the role that Annette Benning plays in Being Julia. She reverses the equation, making the younger woman the foolish one, without particularly the intelligence and wit, but also the beauty and seasoned talent of the older stage (and movie) star, Benning. She controls the plot, and indeed, the entire film. It is a portrayal of a powerful woman – yet one woman still undoes another. Unlike the courage of Bette Davis in All About Eve, playing the older actress against a more beautiful younger actress, Benning plays against a horsey looking actress in unattractive costumes with bumpy gestures -- her beauty suggested but not really there, just enough off. After the success of Sunset Boulevard, Gloria Swanson appeared in several more films, along with being a guest on the Tonight Show. She talked about health with Johnny Carson, using her own healthy lifestyle and youthful glamour to document the good effects of a vegetarian diet and no smoking. It’s too bad that Carson didn’t listen to her about the dangers of smoking. Instead, she was taken as a bit flaky not only because of her age which still didn’t show, but because she was an early health food and no smoking advocate. Jump into 2005 and another comeback role: Jane Fonda. After a fifteen year absence from the screen, her career of forty nine films relinquished for her marriage to Ted Turner, Fonda reappeared – initially as the privileged presenter of a big Academy Award in 2003, looking glamorous with her new short hairdo and remarkable figure; then as the author of a best-selling autobiography on a book tour, timed with the release of her film, Monster-in-Law, a bad title and pun on “mother-in-law.” Like Keaton’s character, Fonda plays a successful career woman and mother, a top TV news anchor and celebrity.
17 Almost immediately, she is replaced by a younger blonde anchor and becomes highly codependent on her son, the handsome and boring doctor about to fall in love and marry the Jennifer Lopez dog walker/aspiring fashion designer. These two women then proceed to compete for the man – at least on the surface. But the focus of the film – the story and the comedy -- is the battle between the two women, the new guard versus the old. The man is almost irrelevant. And although Lopez is credited above Fonda, and they reconcile in a soft-focus ending, the gloves are off between youth and age. And while Lopez wins the man/son in marriage, and gets to humiliate Fonda by a face in the soup shot, Fonda takes the film – comically and stylistically. No small task given the clinging mother/manipulative and controlling mother-in-law stereotype she plays. The reason for this is not a mystery – Fonda’s talent, elegant articulation, and strong screen presence. Other elements of the film conspire with her. Foremost, after the script, of course, Lopez wears unattractive, albeit fashionable, little girl clothes and acts accordingly coy, while Fonda is given high fashion and arch double-takes. One recurring battle is over whether Fonda will wear a fluffy peach bridesmaid dress or her sleek white couture gown to the wedding. After throwing it away with disgust several times, she will wear the peach in the happy ending but just for a few seconds, enough to prove she is a good sport. However, we have already seen the fatal comparison – Fonda is more beautifully elegant than the bride in full regalia. Both women have their own sidekicks – Fonda a black assistant and Lopez a gay guy and dull girlfriend – who have snappy answers and wisecracks. Another wise-cracker, Elaine Stritch, makes a cameo appearance as the grandmother in law – bringing about the magical reconciliation just before the wedding – reminding Fonda of her humble origins when she married Stritch’s son. Class and ethnicity are the presumably higher principles uniting these two women and ennobling the film. In life . . . Like the photograph of her face on her book cover, Fonda looks great, nothing at all like the 67 year old plus she was, and doing physical comedy to boot – a terrain rarely occupied by women. Along with the many close-ups in the film, I studied the cover photo of her face with its few marks of age – and I compared this to my face, in the mirror. When she showed up at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, California, I tried to get closer – in order to see whether she had lines and wrinkles that had been erased in the film and on the cover. I couldn’t get close enough for an assessment. And she was wearing sunglasses, at night. Her words were energized, her passion for her life contagious. I was impressed by her book, well written with knowledge and enthusiasm. (Why did this surprise me?) Yet all I wanted to know about was the patch of skin around her eyes and lips -- Was it just coincidental that the following week, I had injections of Restylane around my lips and in the lines along my mouth? And then one month later, Fraxel laser treatments to tone and tighten my facial skin? I think I was emulating Fonda as I used to do with clothing. To be honest, I was not aware of this coincidence until just now.
18 The face (distinct from the head), its contours and masquerade, is another way of thinking Freud's protective shield. Makeup and cosmetic surgery can be protection from the negative social representations that our eyes and ears register as responses (our own and others) to our aging faces. As Freud said, anxiety is a matter of perception. I will never know whether my personal anxiety triggered my earlier fear of aging or vice versa. But as I worried about Rob's heart, I began to focus on the bags under my eyes. Which I would compare to the eyes of others. I had reduced my identity to a small area of skin. Which was ridiculous until I calculated the astronomical profits made on this square inch of face by the cosmetics and plastic surgery industries. The compulsive workings of my mind, and the obsessive logics of culture, coalesced into logic of contradiction, eat/diet, spend/save, be old/look young. Obsession, derived from thought and the fear of catastrophe, and how it was culturally constructed, became intellectually clear. Everything from the stock market and the Wall Street Journal to plastic surgery, from the funeral, cosmetic, makeup, lingerie, drug, gossip, and fashion industries fit my model. In fact, there was nothing in popular culture my model of obsession could not explain. All went into my book, High Anxiety: Catastrophe, Scandal, Age, & Comedy, published in 1992, a fat little text indeed. And although it is overwrought and overlong, I still believe it to be a unique analysis of the way television, or media culture, produces fear and anxiety. It is not just terrorist acts and wars that are making us fearful. It is also the way television and media culture are re-presenting those acts to us. Media create events for us that demand more media time to explain them. But explanations rarely come, usually repetitions of the same shock or scandal, made by a variety of talking heads, usually men, speaking bland banalities with authority, as if for the first time. On the news shows, the female talking heads are increasingly glamorous, becoming more so the longer they are on the show. Several women who began their stints on CNBC as plain Janes emerged in 2005 as glamour girls. Knowledge and insight are not a prerequisite for this position of messenger. There is little thought on television, but many bland and obvious and contradictory opinions, endlessly rehearsed, as if new and original. Packaging counts more than content. Good for me, thought I. I've mastered fear and all the cultural world, through intellect. While my analysis of television's logic still stands, I failed to see how my thoughts, now in overdrive, to say nothing of my outsized ego, were still my problem. Furthermore, reading the book produced anxiety! I had mimicked TV's logic too well. Although I had analyzed my emotional state, nothing had changed. My anxiety level was off the charts. Likewise, while Freud always plots an intriguing situation, his conclusions can be crashing letdowns. Other than blaming the past (especially family members and childhood), Freud's causal interpretations (infantile sexuality, particularly fear of castration and penis envy) are of little help in changing anything in the present, particularly for women. How could I live with any tranquility, or happiness? I longed for equanimity, for serenity (experiences and qualities) but saw them beyond my life's reach.
19 Then I had a startling and simple insight. I realized that Rob's heart condition was not my biggest problem. My fear for his heart was my greatest problem, and my anxiety magnified his worry, creating pain for both of us. Despite my reassuring words, he could feel my fear, which made things worse. He knew I was covering up. On top of this, my desire for a cure or a miracle made acceptance impossible. Stasis was not good enough. This was my turning point, the pivotal moment when my life began to change. My thoughts were determining my reality, not the other way around. ......... After the shock of Rob’s diagnosis of cardiomyopathy in 1988, I lived in a state of low-grade anxiety, fearful of losing him, and feeling that it was my fault. The only escape was hoping -- for a miracle recovery, a medical discovery or a mistaken diagnosis. Several cardiologists and hours of research later, I lost hope. To my surprise, this turned out to be a good thing. Why? Because this kind of false hope and fear go together. As the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron put it: “In the world of hope and fear, we have to change something, we feel we lack something. We can’t just be, in the present moment.” (40/41) 13 After all, in the present, what Ekhardt Tolle calls the now, Rob was OK. Chodron goes on: Usually we believe that when we feel suffering, something is wrong. And we try to escape the pain. “But suffering is a part of life, we haven’t done anything wrong.” (41) I had to accept the pain and the situation, realizing it was not my fault. I was the ultimate fixer, the doer, the rescuer. And now there was nothing to do. “All anxiety, all dissatisfaction, all the reasons for hoping that our experience could be different are rooted in our fear of death. Fear of death is always in the background.” (43) I had to face my fear. I imagined myself on a journey through fear that began with facing death. But my fear was so deep and archaic that the mind couldn't touch it. Besides, my noisy, restless mind was part, if not most, of the problem. In 1987, out of desperation, I made an appointment with a therapist whose name my daughter, Dae, a very worried senior in high school then, found for me. Disclosing my sad state to a stranger was not on my agenda. But this very ordinary decision would change the course of my life. Within a year, this decision would take me to India, to an Ashram in a small, poor village outside Bombay, called Ganeshpuri (after the Hindu elephant God, Ganesha, the remover of obstacles), where I had the darshan, a personal meeting, a sharing of a glance, a word, an acknowledgement, of a brilliant woman, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, who became my spiritual teacher. I stayed in the ashram for two weeks, sleeping on a cot on an outdoor balcony with many other women from around the world. I meditated, crosslegged on the floor, at 3 am, wrapped in a shawl in the cool Indian air, sat, cross-legged on the floor, through the morning chant of the Guru Gita, a song of 183 verses in Sanskrit, none of which I could pronounce, did “seva” by cleaning the kitchen for several hours a day in 100 plus degree temperatures, and attended other programs. But I am getting ahead of my story . . .
20 CHAPTER 2
A Spiritual Quest in India: Studying Death
Marge Rock. Can you imagine a better name for a therapist? As I sat in the waiting room of her suburban office, a very tall, looming over six feet, red haired, and graceful 50ish woman dramatically swept out to meet me. Marge Rock was magnificent, smelling of jasmine oil, wearing some Native American or crystal necklaces over her purple knit outfit, with bright red shoes and bangles on her wrists pinging and jangling. With her broad shoulders, ample bosom, and impossibly long thin legs, she was an impressive figure, filling every inch of space with her energy -- which felt wise, seasoned with experience. I felt as if I had just met the female Yoda, or the living Sphinx, or perhaps Auntie Mame. She'd been there, done that, with gusto and laughter. She looked down at me from her towering height with eyes that were gentle and spoke in her huskily lilting voice . . . “Well, hello there, you must be Pat. It's great to meet you, come on in. I'm a recovering alcoholic, you know . . . let's talk. I'm also an actress, a singer, dancer, writer and an artist." Later I would learn this outsized claim was no exaggeration. We entered her cozy, warm office – yes, it was womb-like. Was this for real? I would soon find out that Marge was very real indeed. I would be lying if I said I felt safe with a therapist, even if she were a Rock. I didn't like therapy at all. I felt pressure to produce, to be interesting and “therapeutically correct.” This one-on-one thing required honesty and a closeness that was beyond my reach or desire. But I needed help. My never-ending anxiety would begin in my knees and elbows and then physically spread throughout my entire body. Midway into the hour, Marge suggested that rather than responding to her remarks with “I know,” I try saying “I hear you.” “After all, Pat, if you already know everything, what are you doing here?” Whoa! But I couldn’t feel much worse. So I scheduled a regular weekly time slot. With Marge’s guidance, I began to deal with the fear beneath my anxiety. And fear of losing Rob was only the most obvious and serious. I was a bundle of knotted fears . . . fear of public speaking, fear of flying, fear of not being good enough, or smart enough, and my biggest fears around money, loss and death. I began to see my life as a journey through fear, which, according to Marge, was a “wonderful opportunity”. “Surely, Marge, you jest. What is so wonderful about feeling fear?” Marge had read every book written on new (and old) age spirituality and visited healers, astrologers, mind readers, body workers, and various gurus. To me, this alien
21 world was a booga booga universe of unprovable claims and self-deception. Often she would give me self-help exercises, which were printed on flash cards. How nice. Hohum. But I always tried to do what she suggested, sometimes thinking the solutions were ridiculously simplistic… And, of course, unfailingly, everything she suggested worked, almost immediately! And there were few situations for which she did not have a ready remedy. Whenever I experienced the physicality of anxiety, I tried to envision the specific fear, and then move toward and through it, until it vanished. Then I took the affirmation literally. Fear of heights? Rob and I climbed the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and then Notre Dame Cathedral. Fear of flying? I traveled to and around Australia, flew in the USSR on Aeroflot, the notorious state airline. Fear of public speaking . . . I gave presentations in Finland, Australia, and England, to large audiences. I was still frightened, even terrified (I didn’t sleep for five nights in Helsinki, and panicked before one talk in Sydney), but fear was losing its stranglehold.) I even tried “affirmations,” then trendy, repeating out loud that “delivering talks at major conferences was one of my favorite activities.” Or, I simply asked myself “What could happen to me? What is the worst thing that can happen to me? Would they stone me for a boring lecture? No.”. The answer was “nothing” or just acute embarrassment. As fear began to ebb, faith replaced it. As one eked out, the other flowed in. When I was a girl, prayer had always been my link to God, soothing my childish fears of the dark and of being lost. In college, rather than this mystical connection and comfort from Catholicism, began a feeling of interior impurity, of a soul that was flawed, imperfect. Prayer alone was no longer enough to counter this sense of shame; I sensed that the answer lay in meditation, which to me was an exotic, Eastern practice. I was intrigued by the story Marge had told me about her new Indian meditation teacher, the Harlem minister, and the cashmere shawl. “What a strange name, gurusomethingorother,” I thought. “Another one of Marge's many mystical pursuits.” But without knowing any of the players, this parable of contemporary life drew me in. It also baffled me. An older man, a successful and well-known black minister from a large congregation in New York, Eugene Callendar, who was a devotee, had told Gurumayi about his abusive father, about how he had suffered from his violence as a child, and about his vow never to see this brutal man again. After hearing this very sad, teary, and deeply emotional story, Gurumayi beckoned for a thick, lavender cashmere shawl. The minister thought that the shawl was a gift for him, a reward for all he had suffered and survived, an acknowledgement of all his good acts as a minister of a large congregation. But Gurumayi told him to take the exquisite, luxurious shawl and give it to his father, during the upcoming holiday. After inviting him for Christmas dinner! The powerful, charismatic man was completely
22 stunned -- not only did he want to keep this precious gift himself, the last person on earth he wanted to give anything to, let alone a splendid shawl from his beloved spiritual teacher whom he adored, was his father! And he had vowed never, no never, to see him again! But he obeyed Gurumayi's command and made plans to meet with his father and give him the shawl at Christmas. To his amazement, his father, now wizened and made small and fragile by age, began to weep and ask for forgiveness. The old and painful wounds began to heal. The family reunited on New Year’s for the first time in many years. After it brings our lives into harmony, this gift of forgiveness and compassion sets us free. But it can be a very difficult step to take. It is, as you might guess, a step toward happiness, toward freedom, and toward humility. But I didn't understand any of this yet. Like Eugene, when I first heard the story, it seemed logical to keep the shawl. Why reward a bad man with a cashmere shawl? Why not give it to the one who deserves it? The story, in reality a parable, was like a Zen haiku, or koan, completely beyond my comprehension, intellectually and spiritually. Marge gave me a taste of the power of compassion with one of her flash-card exercises. My sister, Nancy, and I had an argument, over something trivial. I told Marge I was finally going to take a stand, and be a strong woman; this time, I was right! I would not cave to my sister as I usually did but would hold my ground. Instead of “Good for you, you strong woman!” Marge handed me a yellow card. “Call your sister and say these exact words to her.” On the card was printed: “I love you. You are right, and I am wrong, and I apologize.” What? Why would I say this? I was right, absolutely! “Do you want to be right or do you want a loving relationship with your sister? Just try it, Pat, and call me afterward.” Grrrrrrrrrrrr....But I memorized the words, picked up the telephone, called my sister, and repeated the words, exactly. To my surprise, Nancy melted at “I love you” and began her own apologies. The fight disappeared. Such is the power of forgiveness and compassion. And the corrosiveness of the need to be right. Around the same time, in 1989, I was a fellow at the East/West Center at the University of Hawaii; I was giving a keynote speech at the Honolulu International Film Symposium and had a case of high anxiety. I asked Didi Chang, a lovely Chinese woman and one of the film festival organizers, if she knew anything about meditation. She invited me to her meditation center that very evening, for a Thanksgiving program and chant in a house in the hills above Honolulu. I had never asked anyone about meditation before this. In the dim, wood paneled meditation hall, there was a large photograph of a young Indian woman, with penetrating dark eyes and a stunningly beautiful visage. She was wearing a red robe and a red hat. As the hostess told me, she was the head of the Siddha yoga lineage. This was an ancient order of monks who preserved and passed-on their experiences of meditation, revealing what were, until recent times, secrets knowable by only a few seekers who made the difficult journey to a small village in India. The
23 photograph was placed on a large chair, we all sat in front of it. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. As everyone around me dreamily and then exuberantly chanted, “Hare Rama, Hare Krishna,” going faster and faster, I became terrified. I had to escape the image and the chant and the fear they had aroused. I quickly left the hall, went outside and smoked a cigarette. (The smoke drifted into the purified air of the meditation hall, causing the attendants to look around for a fire. Embarrassing moment indeed!) But I got myself together enough to come back inside for a fabulous chocolate dessert after the program ended. Didi drove me back to my room at the University; I said nothing about my intense fear. “I’ll never do that again,” thought the Great I. But throughout the next days of the Hawaii International Film Festival, strangers would ask me how I had enjoyed the meditation program. I wanted to shoo them away, pretend I didn’t know them. This was a no never event for me! Or so I thought. But the image of that photograph had so indelibly printed itself that I couldn’t get the vision out of my mind. At my next therapy session, I told Marge about this experience. “Well, how amazing is this! She is my spiritual teacher, and I have just returned from her ashram in upstate New York. The intense fear was not coming from Gurumayi, Pat, it was coming from within you! It has to come up before it can leave you. This is wonderful! Why don’t you come to the local center with me for a chant and meditation? Oh, do you remember the story I told you about the cashmere shawl? That was the same teacher.” Although it took time for me to see the “wonderfulness” of this experience, this was the beginning of my soul’s awakening. 14 I would soon begin to turn within for strength, but before my inner world could become a source of respite, wisdom and clarity, it had to be cleared of old (and new) fears and insecurities. And this is the work of a spiritual master, a teacher, a Guru -- the job of the teacher or Guru, has always been to purify and diminish the ego, the part of us that was either grandiose or belittling, the source of fear and false pride alike. 15 And although I didn’t know it yet, I had found my spiritual teacher, my guru. My first official step into this alien territory was a Siddha Yoga meditation intensive in a basement recreation room, in Milwaukee, on Easter weekend in 1989. I had just been discharged a week early from six days in the hospital after emergency abdominal surgery to remove an infected cyst, exactly, precisely, at the base of my spine. The healing, like the onset, was inexplicably rapid, mysterious, enabling me to attend the intensive. And for Siddha Yoga, the base of the spine is more than just bones we sit on. The two-day program, broadcast live via satellite from India, began at 5 am and lasted until 6 pm. It consisted of meditation, talks by Swamis (monks), and chanting. I couldn’t believe I was doing this! Chanting “Hare Rama” to the beat of a drum and the sound of a harmonium for an hour and then sitting in the dark for forty-minutes of meditation! In a packed little basement room of strangers, a space that reeked of incense. To say nothing about getting up at 3am! And paying for the experience! It all boggled
24 my mind. How did I get here, a frugal Catholic girl, independent thinker, and media scholar? In the past, I had more disdain than interest in Eastern meditation, seeing it as an affectation of hippies and avant-garde artists in the 1970s about whom I had written (and known). (I cringe when I remember my dismissal, based only on complete ignorance.) But now I was desperate, I had hit a wall of fear and panic. I found no consolation in my Catholic tradition – which had lapsed into mediocrity through my lack of practice and belief. I needed reassurance that God was real and could hear me, I needed to take dramatic action, to up the level of my belief in a “power greater than myself,” as AAers might put it. I longed for an experience of God’s reality. I was desperate for God’s tangibility. During the intensive, the talks concerning the contemporary application of ancient spiritual teachings were brilliant and uplifting. They focused on everyday life, on the present moment. All the speakers had a light-hearted clarity and a real joy. I felt happier than I had in years. What a rush, feeling “light-hearted” again after months in panicky darkness. And there were breaks every 50 minutes at the intensive, times for delicious treats. Part of my enthusiasm came from the fact that I physically survived meditation, and that I had the courage and open-mindedness to participate in something that was so unfamiliar, even alien, to me. Sitting still (for even fifteen minutes) and focusing my erratic, cascading thoughts were the most difficult things I have ever done. Seriously. During the event, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda gave a talk in English and chanted with the participants, live in India and in the US. via satellite. She was illuminating, lovely . . . a compelling figure in her early 40s – with a great sense of humor and a magnificent intelligence. She was the head of the large, international SYDA Foundation, she was young but ageless, a captivating, fascinating, articulate presence, the still photograph come to life. I was assured that during this event -- an experience designed by Baba Muktananda, Gurumayi’s teacher -- I would receive an initiation, what is called Shaktipat, the awakening of the divine energy within each of us, called the Kundalini Shakti. For Kashmir Shaivism, the basis of Siddha Yoga that shares aspects of Hinduism, this life force, or Kundalini, lies dormant, coiled at the base of the spine (the precise site of my removed cyst), until it is ignited by a spiritual teacher, a master – a being who has attained enlightenment. This very high and rare state simply means to be one with God and the universe, to live in unity, not separation, all the time. Union is, in fact, the meaning of the word “yoga,” union with the inner Self, union with God, union with everyone and everything. (Knowing about this state is one thing, experiencing it another.) My skeptical mind immediately began to object: How could this energy be transmitted on television, over a live satellite broadcast from India? It must be wishful or magical thinking, or a fanciful hallucination. It used to be that a Guru had a personal
25 relationship with a disciple – the instructions were oral, the look of the Guru was a direct gaze. Finding and then meeting a spiritual teacher used to be rare, and arduous, and usually in India, or somewhere in the Himalayas, in a cave. As a wandering sadhu, a seeker, wearing only a loincloth, Baba Muktananda walked the length and breadth of India for many years looking for his teacher, Bhagawan Nityananda. The US had no tradition of wandering, almost naked men, seeking God. I had never met Gurumayi. And here there were several thousand people around the world taking the intensive. How could she look at each of us? How could she know I was even there? Who was I kidding! This is TV, not life. My answer came on Easter Sunday, right after the intensive: I had an experience unlike anything in my life. It still sounds fantastical. I had stopped at a stoplight on my way home. Another car pulled up. The driver stared at me, a perplexed, weird look on his face; I wondered what he was seeing. Then I felt it – my body, all 118 pounds of it then – was no longer confined within my skin, but was expanding, rolling into the back seat, rising up to the top of the car, a red Toyota Celica, which this internal self now filled. I drove away quickly, trying to pull my body or my spirit back inside its sack of skin, like a stretchable Warner Brothers cartoon body. Bewildered, I laughed as I thought about gathering my now elastic body to get out of the car. I had no boundaries, no limits, nothing holding me in place except the car. I was so much more than I had ever imagined! And this experience was so literal! I must be very thickheaded to need such a blatant experience. Others at the Intensive had described seeing an exploding white light, or walking into the blaze of their own hearts, or seeing ethereal blue beings. I turned into a cartoon-body, ala Chuck Jones and his Road Runner. When I got home, I took my dog, the ever-faithful BP, for a walk down Lake Drive, toward the park. The spring day was beautiful, and I was inexplicably (or so I thought) euphoric. Then I experienced the most extraordinary thing – I began to float up, going higher and higher, over the city, anchored only by BP’s leash. I was lighter than air and I filled an immense space. My Self was infinitely greater than the confines of my body; it was free, it was buoyant and clairvoyant, it could go anywhere and see anything. And it flew high above the shore of Lake Michigan. But as I began to wonder about this strange state of elated elevation, remembering that I was afraid of heights, I slowly descended to the sidewalk. But even on solid ground as just my ordinary small self, I have never felt such happiness. Ecstasy might be a better word. It was like a physical substance, an elixir of nectar that I hadn’t tasted before. I was filled with it, there was no room for anything sad or fearful. There was no space for anxiety. This “inner state” was for real; it truly existed, if only for a brief time, and it was within me, although I could not hold it for very long. I was like a sieve; I didn’t have the discipline or the inner strength to hold onto grace. But for that moment, I was enough, in fact, more than enough. *****
26 But I wanted more of what I experienced -- elated contentment. I suspect this is what I was looking for, and never found, in my addiction to valium. I began to attend satsang, programs with other spiritual seekers, at the local Siddha Yoga Center (initially the same basement room in a small house in the suburbs), on Wednesday evening and at a pizza restaurant for Sunday morning chants of 183 verses in Sanskrit which I could not pronounce. I knew nothing about Eastern philosophy and spiritual practices, which Baba clearly and repeatedly differentiated from religions. (The key difference is religion’s man-made morality, systems of good and bad behaviors, based on dogma instead of experience.) But every Wednesday evening, after a program of chanting and meditation with other devotees or seekers, I felt lighter, happier, freer. I am a bit klutsy so this feeling of floating was unusual, I wanted to meet this woman, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda (a name I still couldn’t pronounce or spell). I felt compelled to go to India. I wanted to test the truth of my experiences in her physical presence. I also wanted to go faster along this new path, I wanted the jump-start of seeing her physical form. And to be honest, my outsized ego wanted or needed a dramatic experience. She was in residence at her ashram in India – Gurudev Siddha Peeth. Visitors were welcome. I wrote a letter to Gurumayi and received her approval to come to India. Telling my very Catholic mother that I was in pursuit of a Guru was a daunting task. I would receive a Fulbright to study women in Indian cinema a year or two later. But scholarship was not my primary motivation – it was a justification for my mother – who would subsequently develop fear of my new practices – believing them to be those of a cult follower. No matter how many of my Siddha Yoga teachers my mother met, including Gurumayi, Swami Indirananda, Peter Hayes, and a prominent minister from a congregation in Harlem, Eugene Callendar, she held on to her fear and disapproval. I suspect that “saving me” for Catholicism might have kept her alive. She elicited the St. Robert’s Parish women’s prayer group, usually reserved for the terminally ill, to include me, by name, in their weekly list, relayed via telephone. I wondered why she so feared something that had enabled me to survive my fear about Rob, and something that was making me so happy. I suspect that along with my damnation, she feared losing her dominant place in my life. Her sad disapproval was painful for me because I loved my mother deeply and I loved spending time with Gurumayi, a figure of pure fearlessness. In contrast, my mother’s fear for me was a heavy burden – as was her lack of trust in my intelligence and in Gurumayi. In fact, fear was a legacy I wanted to shed. But this would take some time, as it turns out. A single journey would not do it. Despite the State Department tourist warnings due to the first Gulf War, I went fearlessly to India, to the ashram in Ganeshpuri, a small, poor, and dusty village two hours from Mumbai, then Bombay, my first time in a third-world country. I didn’t have a clue what to expect. I worried that I was too noisy for such a holy place, I moved and talked too fast to be a spiritual aspirant. I liked new clothes and entertainment too much! I wore make-up and colored my hair! At least I didn’t drink; and I had just quit smoking.
27 At the ashram, I felt awkward removing my shoes when entering rooms, pranaming, or bowing, to the Guru’s seat, or chair and photograph, and sitting cross-legged on the floor, men on one side, women on the other. The Indian vegetarian diet, with its spicy odors and tastes, along with the pungent smell of incense, added to my estrangement. I ate using flatware and sitting on a chair in the Western style Amrit rather than in the Indian main dining hall, with fingers, seated on the floor. Then there was the dress code of long skirts (an initial affront to a pants-wearing feminist) or Indian saris and the lengthy repetition of Sanskrit chants (which can last for days, called saptahs), to say nothing of rituals of offering to, I foolishly thought, the statues and paintings of Hindu deities and the photographs of saints that were everywhere. (Shades of Catholic or Christian guilt – worshipping “false idols.”) The images simply remind us of what we can be. The ornate, colorful Indian aesthetic initially seemed garish, hokey more than sacred. But there was so much joy, wisdom, tranquility and laughter that my embarrassment at being not only a novice but also a klutz melted. As my fear was soothed by the knowledge and experience of Indian culture, my intolerance and critical judgments, all fear based, also melted. I noticed that right beside statues of Krishna were statues of Jesus and Mary. Once again, I was unknowing, and happy to be in that state. But I was a doofus, a Lucy Goes to India. Because there were fewer men in the ashram, there were more spaces on their side of the various halls. Like a star-struck fan, I wanted to be closer to the front, closer to the Guru’s chair in case she came to the program, so I would sit there, for the first ten days, oblivious to the apparent gender divide. Or I would take an empty spot along a wall (for leaning back) in a temple, just beneath a photograph of Baba or another deity like Ganesha, the elephant god, not realizing that devotees would be bowing in front of this photograph – in essence, bowing to me. Basically, I was unwittingly sitting on an “altar.” In retrospect, ignorance can be comic as well as embarrassing. But the hall monitors all took compassion on this gangly, eager American, never correcting my social goofs. For two weeks, I lived a truly communal lifestyle – which I loved. I slept on a cot in the women’s dormitory, an open-air room for one hundred. We each had a metal footlocker for our personal belongings. The toilets were pits in the ground, nice ones, the shower, buckets of hot water and a cup, located in a separate building, three floors down. During a bout of traveler’s diarrhea, I became a sprinter. I arose at 3 am for meditation; then attended the morning Arati and the 183 verse Sanskrit chant, the Guru Gita, followed by breakfast and seva – selfless service. My job, or seva, was in Amrit, the kitchen, which fed more than 1,000 people per day, including villagers for Sunday lunch. I served and washed dishes for three meals, and then mopped the floors at the day’s end. The temperature was in the 100s, and the humidity was high. I was soon exhausted from the heat and the rigor of the discipline. How did everyone else have so much energy? How could they sit still for meditation for such long periods? I would never have the stamina for such an arduous life. Why did the other devotees look so happy, so relaxed, so breezy, so rested? Were they super beings?
28 I will never be strong enough for meditation! Like my weary body that yearned for sleep, my mind was restless, noisy, longing for a distraction, like television or a movie or a shopping trip. So I went to Bombay, now Mumbai, a two-hour drive from the Ashram. As I bought sandalwood carvings, inlaid marble, cashmere shawls, and intricately patterned silk, I saw India with double vision – as luxuriously, sumptuously beautiful and as abjectly poor. Beggars without legs and arms were on every street, living in mud shacks lining the high walls around luxury hotels and on the outskirts of the city. I was unfamiliar, and hence fearful, of Indian customs. I had never been in such a country. I had been overwhelmed by the throngs at the airport, hundreds of outstretched, begging arms and hands, a crush of thin, dark, grasping bodies begging to carry my luggage. The smell of India was an intense odor, burning dung, or urination against building walls. In public spaces, I felt very vulnerable, painfully visible, spotlighted by staring eyes, and close bodies, some missing body parts and begging. My fear was on the surface. 16 But I was in India for a higher purpose than tourism and shopping. This was a pilgrimage, a spiritual, holy journey, the first of many I would make to see Gurumayi in the next eighteen years. Near the end of my two-week visit, I was introduced to Gurumayi in her marble courtyard filled with fragrant trees and flowers. The devotees were all dressed up, wearing saris and flowers in their hair. Everyone was beautiful and moved gracefully, in an air of excitement. I was grubby from the kitchen, disheveled, klutzy, awkward. I pranamed – kneeling and bowing, my head below my heart --and told her about Rob’s heart. She looked at me directly and nodded compassionately. She asked where I was from. Her look, her darshan, was unlike any other – she didn’t look through me but within me; it was electrifying. I knew that Rob was in God’s hands. I began to let go – a process which would take me years. My fear lessened, laughter began to return. I felt that God had heard me, and was taking Rob, Dae, and me on a meditation journey to a safer, more intelligent place. The Guru, which simply means spiritual teacher in India, is an example of what we can become. The job of a Guru is to destroy the ego, that part of us that keeps us away from our interior greatness. The ego is a false measure of self – telling us that we are nothing or that we are the best. The ego thrives on fear, in all it guises, including anger and false pride. Thus, a spiritual path is an arduous one. For the ego doesn’t want to give up control, it doesn’t want to die, and it will struggle mightily to survive. As the ego shrinks, or dies, as it begins to surrender, one experiences pain, sometimes searing pain, before the joy that will ultimately, always, be released. Siddha Yoga refers to this pain as a burning sensation. Humility can be the result, along with contentment. It is a prerequisite for a true seeker and a virtue I sorely lacked, but one of which I was aware through AA. In fact, the 12 steps of AA dovetailed perfectly with spiritual practices and principles. The inner Self, or Witness, is the goal of all Eastern spiritual practices. Sogyal Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist, puts it this way: “Two people have been living in you all your life. One is the ego, garrulous, demanding, hysterical, calculating; the other is the
29 hidden spiritual being, whose still voice of wisdom you have only rarely heard or attended to. As you listen . . . to the teachings . . . your inner voice, what we call in Buddhism ‘discriminating awareness,’ is awakened . . . and you begin to distinguish between its guidance and the clamorous and enthralling voices of ego.” 17(120) Cultivating “awareness” is no small task. Most people don’t even begin the process. The rest have no idea that they have virtually no inner awareness. Another way of illuminating this difference is the double definition of the mind. Sogyal Rinpoche writes: “The still revolutionary insight of Buddhism is that life and death are in the mind, and nowhere else. Mind is . . . the creator of happiness and the creator of suffering, the creator of what we call life and what we call death.” The ordinary mind “thinks, plots, desires, manipulates, flares up in anger, creates and indulges in waves of negative emotions and thoughts . . . the ordinary mind is the shiftless prey of external influences” and habits. “It is like a candle flame in an open doorway on a windy day . . . it is flickering, unstable, grasping, and endlessly minding others’ business. . . a Mexican jumping bean” or a “monkey hopping restlessly from branch to branch.” It is within “this ordinary mind” that we “undergo change and death.” And then “there is the very nature of mind, its innermost essence, which is absolutely and always untouched by change or death. At present it is hidden within our own mind, enveloped and obscured by the mental scurry of our thoughts and emotions.” This mind is “like the sky and shining sun, obscured by the movements of clouds. It is pure, pristine awareness that is at once intelligent, cognizant, radiant, and always awake.” It is “‘the knowledge of knowledge itself.’” (46/47) Gurumayi, and Baba, would ask us, “Who is seeing through your eyes? Who is the seer?” The seer embodies the “knowledge of knowledge itself.” All of this takes great discipline – of the senses, of the body, and particularly of the mind, which causes all the restlessness and anxiety in the first place. Discipline, rather than being restrictive, oppressive, is ultimately liberating. And while meditation can be vexing, even tortuous, it will transform into a beneficial, joyous experience. As the mind gradually becomes quiet, clear, and focused by meditation, it becomes strong, like a laser beam, and mental tasks become simpler; thoughts and emotions arise and subside rather than rage and overwhelm. The wild mind that has learned to obsess, to rage, becomes tamed. I loved this new knowledge. I was very grateful, even for my ignorance; I was a blank slate with everything to learn. This was thrilling to me. Life began to look like an exciting adventure rather than a sad melodrama. But first I had to change old habits, dug in for almost fifty years. I hung onto the distinction between the pleasurable, the quick, temporary fix, and the beneficial, which lasts and satiates. I imagined finding “the space between thoughts,” the place of complete stillness. I yearned for contentment, I longed for “God within me.” I bought all the books by Baba Muktananda, Gurumayi’s teacher, as well as those written by Gurumayi, the head of this ancient lineage since Baba’s death in 1982. I began a decade long practice of reading sections every morning and evening.
30 I visited Baba’s Samadhi Shrine in the ashram, a powerful space filled with peacock feathers, with which Baba would bless aspirants. This is where Baba’s body was buried. This place of death was comforting, joyous, not at all morbid. Baba had built this ashram with his devotees, transforming the deforested, arid land and a one-room mud hut into a beautiful place of blossoming trees, lush grasses, and hundreds of roses. The walled ashram is a marble oasis, with cool meditation rooms and halls, dormitories, beautiful gardens, open green fields and long walking paths. Flowering trees perfume the air. The ashram is near a dusty, small village. Ganeshpuri is poor, humble, with dirt roads. Everyone is barefoot, the children uniformed for school, the mothers young and tiny, in brightly colored saris, carrying their small babies on their hips. The only health care is provided by the ashram. The Siddha Foundation just built a hospital and for years has provided dental care, along with eye camps, performing tens of thousands of cataract surgeries. The temples in the surrounding villages are simple, rustic buildings, old and small by today’s standards, yet filled with the history and presence of great beings who meditated there hundreds of years ago. We toured these places where Baba had lived, where his Guru, Bhagawan Nityananda, lived and died; we visited Nityananda’s humble home, his bedroom a recreation of a small Pullman car; in his temple, we wondered at the power of his murti, a statue of his likeness, spiritually alive, energetic; we chanted with the villagers, we offered dakshina, a gift of flowers, or money, or fruit to these great Siddhas, these saints. These were holy lands, sacred spaces, imbued with a history of intense feeling. I was blanketed in a spiritual atmosphere that deeply moved me, exhilarated me, and then exhausted me. I wasn’t sure that I had the stamina, to say nothing of the discipline, for this newfound path. I was overwhelmed by India, by its poverty and its riches, by its spiritual rituals, by its complex mythology, by its pervasive smell and tastes, by its beauty and sordidness, by its spiritual and even physical energy. My two weeks were up. I was relieved to return to the U.S., to the clean sterility of Heathrow and then JFK airports, to an antiseptic odor, to my comfortable bed, luxurious sheets, privacy, TV set, and bedroom walls; I was hungry for American junk food and clothing stores and unpolluted air and movies and public shopping malls. I looked forward to sleeping late – or so I thought. India proved to be another indelible experience (and I would return). After this journey, something woke me up for early morning meditation, followed by chanting the Guru Gita, the 183-verse chant, with Gurumayi on videotape. After this beginning, my days were noticeably more harmonious. I began to MC programs and give talks at the local Siddha Yoga Center in Milwaukee, sharing my spiritual experiences. My fear of public speaking was intense, even after almost twenty years of college teaching, but I did it anyway. It took me two days to prepare about six or seven minutes for each program, and then several hours being tutored by another, more experienced devotee. What is this? The Great Me, teacher and author of many essays, being “tutored?” By a massage therapist? Then I
31 remembered the Lord’s Club – where all the jobs from President down to janitor are performed by everyone, on a rotating basis. All work, or seva, selfless service, is equal. It was tough at times but the “great me” softened and began to gain a smidgeon of humility. Tutoring is like brilliant editing – it always made the text better. But it was also more than this. It encouraged a process of contemplation, where we go deeper within and connect knowledge to our own experience. We make the teachings our own while maintaining their integrity and truth. This is the way to speak from the heart. I used to think my MC work was for others; it wasn’t, it was only for me, to lift my fear of public speaking, to clarify my experiences, and to embed them in my memory. When Gurumayi visited Milwaukee two years later, in the spring of 1992, I was an enthusiastic, quaking MC for her welcome program. I loved interacting with her, an intensely heightened, energized feeling of grace. But I am getting ahead of my story 18 In February, 1991, two months after I returned from India, I heard that Gurumayi would be returning to her ashram in upstate New York for her birthday celebration, June 24-26. I registered for a two-week visit of seva and courses taught by the Swamis and other Siddha Yoga teachers. This ashram is in a small town, South Fallsburg, New York, around two hours from New York City. It was created by combining three run-down Catskill resorts – in what had become an unfashionable, hardscrabble area of unemployment, abandoned summerhouses, and decayed swimming pools, long ago popular as a summer destination for city dwellers and a nightclub circuit know as the Borscht Belt that spawned generations of stand-up comics. (With the recent passage of gambling laws in Stewart County, the area is on the rise again.) At Shri Muktananda Ashram, I stayed in a 12x12 feet square hotel room, in a building later named Anugraha, with gold shag carpeting on the floor and olive green shag on the lower walls – leftovers from the sixties decor. The room had no telephone (in a time before ubiquitous cell phones), one bathroom and closet, four metal bunk beds, and I shared it with seven other women (and their baggage) of various nationalities. That I could share a room with even one other woman, to say nothing of seven, was astonishing. (By 1998, this décor had been completely remodeled, in soft beige and pastels, for four.) As in India, I tried to follow the ashram daily schedule, arising at 4 am, chanting the morning Arati (followed by Chai, a sugary tea made from Baba’s special recipe), and then chanting the Guru Gita. I was late, frequently. I worked in the Amrit Café, making the morning coffee, slicing hundreds of bagels, serving food, and washing dishes. I added the noon and evening Aratis, invocation to sacred deities, Shiva and Ram (various names for aspects of God) along with a longer evening chant to my daily schedule – trying to live the ashram life. I was soon exhausted, discombobulated, Lucy at the Ashram.
32 Imagine Lucille Ball wrapping herself in the miles of an Indian sari, a garment without a single pin or button. Or getting up from the floor after hours of cross-legged meditation and chanting. Or washing huge pots and pans from meals that often fed two or three thousand people, and running them in an industrial, room-size dishwasher, dashing from one end to the other, by herself. I began to love chanting – although I always wanted to sing, my off-key voice, like Lucy, had always been an embarrassment. But in the chant, my voice blended in. And it felt exactly like rock ‘n roll when Gurumayi was in the lead. No matter how off-key I was, the other voices carried mine. The support of the community, the sangha, is very real and observable. Then there was meditation. Not easy at all for me. In fact, the hardest thing I have ever attempted. But at least my body didn’t scream in pain after fifteen minutes of sitting cross-legged on the floor; slowly, it was learning correct posture and relaxation. I noticed that as my mind became calm, so did my restless body. As I focused on my breathing during meditation, repeating the Siddha Yoga mantra, “Om Namah Shivaya,” meaning “I bow to God, to Shiva, within me,” I could feel my interior healing – from a bleeding ulcer and a butchered abdominal surgery a decade earlier, from yearly bouts of pneumonia and bronchitis, from stress and worry. It helped that Gurumayi came into the amrit/kitchen backdoor one evening and walked directly toward me, gently putting her finger in my sternum, while looking directly through me. I could feel my breath revitalizing parts of my body, healing, lessening the stiffness of my shoulders, the clenching of my jaws, the tightness of my hands. All my fear began to soften, then crumble. I took Hatha Yoga classes based on Yyengar’s methods of yoga and felt almost supple. It was as if for the first time in twenty-five years – of running fast and constantly to be a good mother, a dutiful daughter, and a successful professor, I was stopping to take a deep and long and luxuriant breath. Muscles habitually clenched in anxiety languorously stretched, then relaxed. My body was very reluctantly letting go of years of fear and its tensions. How long had I been on guard? On the defense? Or on the run? Against what foe, what dangers? And why? I loved the story of the king’s parrot – a magnificently plumed bird that lived on a perch in the castle’s golden courtyard. The parrot’s quarters were sumptuous, filled with fruit trees and perfumed air; she was tended by kind servants and fed the best delicacies. She listened to the soft flute playing; she felt the breeze in her feathers. But despite her luxurious surrounds, the parrot yearned only for freedom. But as her longing increased, she grasped tighter to her perch. The sadder she became, the tighter she held on. What she didn’t realize is that she was already free. All she had to do was let go and fly away. I had been given a perfect gift – awareness of stillness within and a way to touch this inner world through meditation. This quality did not come from the outside, it was within me. And it was free – located through the breath and silence. In silence, I could hear God, in my heart, I had no fear. Baba’s maxim was true: “Honor yourself; bow to yourself; God dwells within you as you.”
33 But of all the many benefits I received during that visit to the ashram in upstate New York, perhaps the “Death Course” was the most profound. For five days, we sat cross-legged on the marble floor of the great marble and glass hall, the Shakti Mandap, as students of death, facing our fears, acknowledging our losses and our pain. I noticed that after each session, I felt lighter. By the end of the week, I was positively giddy. Our textbook was a small book by Baba, Does Death Really Exist? 19 Baba was the witness of the death of his Guru, which is one foundation of his little book on death, along with ancient texts like The Bhagavad Gita, and Jnaneshwar Maharaj’s commentary on it. Our teachers were Siddha Yoga Swamis, adorned in their orange robes. Many of them had been college professors in the U.S. when they met Baba Muktananda during one of his world tours in the 1970s. Their brilliance, along with their clarity and quick wit, constantly astonished me. I had met and taught with some of the best and brightest in academia, from around the world. But I had never heard such illuminating ideas, so simply, so purely, stated. They had lived and studied with Baba for many years, and when he died, became disciples of Gurumayi, Baba’s chosen successor. Their words, like their thoughts, had no dross, no excess, as if they had been purified. Siddha Yoga is passed on personally, from Guru to disciple. Baba was devoted to his Guru, Bhagawan Nityananda, who anointed Baba his successor before he died. In his remarkable book, Play of Consciousness 20, Baba shares his meditation experiences and techniques with us, in careful detail. These used to be secret, but Baba opened up his life as a guide to our own inner worlds. It is a road map, and a thrilling one, for meditators. The principles that Baba taught and Gurumayi continues to embody and enrich are ancient, based on complex philosophy and the experiences of meditation masters through centuries. The living lineage can be traced back through time. The practices have been tested through centuries. Sogyal Rinpoche speaks to the guarantee of lineage – the “unbroken chain of transmission from master to master. Lineage serves as a crucial safeguard: It maintains the authenticity and purity of the teaching, living wisdom.” (128) Sogyal Rinpoche also points to the great difference between Eastern and Western philosophies: “Modern Western society has no real understanding of death or what happens in death . . . people today are taught to deny death, and taught that it means nothing but annihilation and loss. That means that most of the world lives either in denial of death or in terror of it. Even talking about death is considered morbid . . . Others look on death with a naive, thoughtless cheerfulness . . . it is nothing to worry about . . .One views death as something to scurry away from and the other as something that will just take care of itself. How far they are from understanding death’s true significance!” (7/8) “The purpose of reflecting on death is to make a real change in the depths of your heart . . . looking into death needn’t be frightening or morbid.” (32) This can lead to a “relinquishing of old habits and the emerging of the joy of change . . . There would be no chance at all of getting to know death if it happened only once. But fortunately, life is
34 nothing but a continuing dance of birth and death, a dance of change. Every time I hear the rush of a mountain stream, or the waves crashing on the shore, or my own heartbeat, I hear the sound of impermanence. These changes, these small deaths, are our living links with death. They are death’s pulse, death’s heartbeat, prompting us to let go of all the things we cling to.” (33) Baba Muktananda was also a student of death: “I did a great deal of sadhana, or spiritual practice in graveyards. They are very good for sadhana because when you see all the dead bodies you know that eventually that will become you.” (2) And a bit later, “We fear death for no good reason. Even if we fear death, we are going to die anyway, so why not accept it with courage? If a person is brave in the face of death, (3) then when he is dying he feels that he is just going to sleep. . . I have watched many people die . . . I was very fond of watching how people died . . . I saw that death is not fearsome; it is only that we worry about it. Truly, death is nothing more than a long sleep . . . For a wise person, death is beautiful.” (4) Baba sketched a map of death’s progress within the body, limb by limb. Of his Guru’s death, he wrote: “First the life left his feet; then his legs became limp. I took his hand and then that too became cold. Finally his eyes rolled up into his head.” (33) (I would watch the prana [life energy] leave my father’s body, in the same exact way). My thoughts began to calm, as I began to let go of the belief that somehow I, in tandem with modern science, could control Rob’s life and death. Baba taught that “No matter who a person is, death pursues him . . . It does not come early and it does not come late. The moment of departure is set at the time of birth, and it does not change, by even a minute. Death is the one thing in the world that is always on time.” (11) It was comforting to believe that the plan was already in play, that I was not in charge, that I could let go and trust that whatever happened would be for the best. And then the key. . .”The truth is that it is our own ego which is death for us. When we have gone beyond the ego, death no longer exists.” (26-27) So here is the way to go beyond the fear of death: “In order to conquer death, we have to transcend the ego, to overcome our limited individuality. We have to realize our identity with the Universal Consciousness . . . and merge with it . . . just as a river merges with the ocean. When a being has attained this state of oneness, he has gone beyond death.” Much like Carl Jung’s philosophy and Buddhism, Siddha Yoga distinguishes the small self from the great Self, the inner Self. (28) 21 Baba tells us that the Self “does not die. The inner Self is ageless and unchanging. Death cannot reach it.” He concludes with these words: “May death die for you.” (44/45) Every day in meditation, I try to let death die a little bit for me. “There are two things you must remember all the time. One is God, and the other is your own death.” Gurumayi elaborates on this message in her book, Remembrance: 22 “There is something about death. It touches the very core of your being. In death, we are all equal. When it comes to death, no one is really special, no one is ordinary.” She tells us: “Death makes life real. Death makes God true . . . Death is supposed to take
35 everything away, to put an end to everything. Yet it is death that gives life to life. Death gives life to God . . . Death challenges you. Death makes you remember. It makes you continue your search. What a wonderful phenomenon death truly is . . . In death, the heart comes alive, in this death, there is beauty. In this death, something great happens.” (65) The other maxim of Indian yogis is: “Don’t wait for death to teach you a lesson.” (67) We need to be ready for our death for it is said that “whatever is on one’s mind in that moment of death,” that is what will be attained. “In order to die peacefully, you must remember the Lord.” As he was assassinated, Gandhi’s last word was “Ram,” the name of the Lord. This was the fruit of his daily meditation and study of the Bhagavad Gita. During all the social struggles, Gandhi always put his spiritual practices first. When death came, unexpectedly, he was ready. I don’t want to miss my death by being trapped in fear. I want to be ready. I want to experience my death as something great. In Still Here, Ram Das discusses the differences between Indian and U.S. cultures regarding death and aging. 23 This famous US meditation teacher known for his dynamic style and boundless energy now writes from his wheelchair, after a severe stroke. He needs assistance in every part of his everyday life. And he is undaunted, aware that our lessons, particularly the painful ones, are simply opportunities. “What pervades Indian culture is the understanding . . . that death is not the end of the road,” but a “point of transition.” The physical life is “a stage in the journey of the Soul toward self-realization,” oneness with God. “Old age offers the opportunity to shift our cares away from the physical toward what cannot be taken away . . . What Indians experience as a time of liberation is experienced by many Americans as a time of loss.” (24/25) This is a key idea for those of us in, or entering, old age: a stage of liberation instead of loss. Near the end of the book, he discovers that “acknowledging our future death is a prerequisite for living a truly joyful life now. Keeping death present in our consciousness, as a great mystery and opportunity for transformation, imbues this moment with a richness and energy that denial saps.” (165) We can view retirement, not as “the end of the line, but as an opportunity to find stillness.” Stillness is a luxury very different from those offered on Carnival or Crystal Cruise Line commercials for retirees, with constant music and activity. But there is no greater pleasure, really joy, than stillness. Baba makes the logic of old age and death even clearer: “If you had true discrimination, if you could think about things clearly, then you would realize that after you have reached a certain age, there is absolutely no point in being scared of death. When you are in your later sixties, your eyes are no longer able to see, your digestive system can no longer digest the food that comes in, your skin is old and wrinkled, your teeth have fallen out . . . You should welcome death.” (p, 37 Darshan) Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk known for his more than onehundred books as well as his peace activism during the Vietnam, or “American War,” in No Death, No Fear, puts the Buddha’s teachings succinctly – redefining death in the
36 process. “Our greatest fear is that when we die we will become nothing . . . We believe we are born from nothing and that when we die we become nothing. And so we are filled with fear of annihilation. The Buddha has a very different understanding of our existence. It is the understanding that birth and death are notions. They are not real. The fact that we think they are true makes a powerful illusion that causes our suffering. The Buddha taught that there is no birth, there is no death; there is no coming, there is no going; there is no same, there is no different . . . We only think there is. When we understand that we cannot be destroyed, we are liberated from fear.” Not only are we liberated from fear, “we are free from craving and free from jealousy. No fear is the ultimate joy.” (63) 24 The last sentence, “no fear is the ultimate joy,” is true, it is my deep belief. Sometimes, not all the time, I experience no fear. This inner state is, truly “ultimate joy.” The process of thinking in dualities is the cause of pain, of suffering. (4/5) Thich Nhat Hanh distinguishes between what he calls the historical and the ultimate dimension. The historical dimension has the pairs of opposites, right and wrong, young and old, coming and going. The “ultimate dimension does not have any of these things . . . There is no beginning or end, no before or after . . . The ultimate is the original, continuing source of being . . .It is the kingdom of God.” (107) In the “ultimate dimension, we have never been born and we will never die. In the historical dimension, we live in forgetfulness and we are rarely truly alive . . . We tend to believe that happiness is only possible in the future. We are always looking for better things, the right conditions to make us happy . . . We try to find things that make us feel more solid, more safe and secure. But we are afraid all the time of what the future will bring . . . But life is available only in the present moment. . As the Buddha said, it is the only moment we have.” (100) We can live in the present. “Our true home is in the here and the now.” “I have arrived, I am home.” “I am not running anymore. I have run all my life; now I am determined to stop and to really live my life.” (101) I have been running, for many years. I am stopping, to live. I am close to home, no matter where I am. Along with the reality of suffering, born of craving, the very basis of addictions, “Buddhism reminds us of the impermanence of all things . . . we chose to believe that we, or our personality, has a solid, real core rather than a collection of separate, constantly fluid parts and energies.” Pema Chodron continues: “Most of the time, warding off death is our biggest motivation . . . the sand is slipping through our fingers. Time is passing. It’s as natural as the seasons changing and day turning into night. But getting old, getting sick, losing what we love – we don’t see those events as natural occurrences. We want to ward off that sense of death . . . When we have reminders of death, we panic.” She recommends that we “just return to bare bones,” “relaxing with the present moment . . . relaxing with death, not resisting the fact that things end, that things pass, that things have no lasting substance . . . Fear of death is the background of the whole thing. It’s why we feel restless, why we panic, why there’s anxiety . . . but we can have a
37 joyful relationship with our lives, one that no longer ignores the reality of impermanence and death.” (When Things Fall Apart, 44-45) 25 Chodron goes even further in coalescing life and death: “To live is to be willing to die over and over again. From the awakened point of view, that’s life. Death wants to hold on to what you have. To have every experience confirm you and congratulate you and make you feel completely together. We can only be completely alive by letting go, by letting ourselves die moment after moment, at the end of each out-breath.” We can let “things fall apart.” (72) By studying death, this is what I sought -- to “let things fall apart,” to “let go and let God,” as the AA axiom puts it, and by so doing, to have a joyful life. “No fear is the ultimate joy.” Amazing thought indeed. And despite the repeated surprise at my topic, death, there is nothing unusual or morbid about this. As Dr. Sherwin Nuland begins his well-known death book, “Everyone wants to know the details of dying, though few are willing to say so . . . We are irresistibly attracted by the very anxieties we find the most terrifying; we are drawn to them by a primitive excitement that arises from flirtation with danger . . . As with every other looming terror, we seek ways to deny the power of death.” 26 This paradox is a central plot element in the Mahabharata, the long and complex Indian epic at the core of Hindu philosophy and everyday life. Near the end of the tale, the exiled King/protagonist comes to a splendid lake. Before he can quench his thirst, the Spirit of the Lake speaks and challenges the King to a philosophical debate. The Spirit of the Lake asks: “What makes the sun rise?” The King answers: “Brahma (God) makes the sun rise.” Spirit: “What outnumbers the blades of grass?” King: “Thoughts outnumber the blades of grass.” “What is the best happiness?” “Contentment.” Near the end of this exchange comes this question: “What is the most extraordinary, the most wonderful, thing in the world?” The wise King replies that every day “innumerable creatures die and yet those that remain behind believe themselves to be immortal.” With this answer to the ultimate riddle of life, the Spirit of the Lake reveals himself as the god he is and grants the King’s wish -- his twelve years of exile wandering in the wilderness are over. In this ancient epic, death is an integral, acknowledged part of life. Accepting death is a prerequisite for a good life of right rather than egotistical or selfish action. It is not death that is the great tragedy of life. Not performing one’s duty, or not taking right action, is the real tragedy. The King’s willingness to engage in the debate and his wisdom to see life clearly results in an exhilarating freedom and a boon -- the lives of the King’s four dead brothers are restored. The battle to reclaim their kingdom, to return goodness to the world, will begin.
38 While this complex epic is known to even the least educated of India, for most of my life, I had no knowledge of it, including its premise that acknowledging the ever presence of death is a precursor for living a good, happy, and free life. This profound paradox – that while the signs of death and death itself surround us every moment of our lives, we live as if immortal – can structure our thoughts and our lives. This denial of the central role death plays in life, in everyday and catastrophic figurations of life, is, in effect, a repudiation of reality. It functions much like Freudian disavowal. I know it’s only a movie, an illusion, but I will believe that its story and characters are real in spite of my knowledge. In essence, we hold contradictory beliefs in order to protect ourselves, and to ward off fear or terror. But no matter the denial, the disavowal, the fear at base remains. Why do we continue to deny, to disavow? The famous Zen master and scholar, Suzuki Roshi, perfectly captures this puzzle: “Life is like getting into a boat that’s just about to sail out to sea and sink. But it’s very hard -- no matter how much we hear about it -- to believe in our own death . . . the one thing in life that we can really count on is incredibly remote . . . we don’t say ‘no, I won’t die,’ because we know that we will. But it definitely will be later . . . that’s the biggest hope” 27 I soon discovered another paradox – while we deny our own death and quickly banish the dead from sight, there are hundreds of death books, “even degrees in death studies.” Judith Lief argues, “The more fascinated we become, the more unreal death seems. We cover up the rawness of death by glamorizing it as entertainment, by maintaining the safe distance of professionalism, and by poring through self-help books.” I know this is what television does, particularly in the new and glamorous forensic crime series with their many close-ups of mutilated dead bodies. But was this what I was doing? Covering up my fear with thought? Something was different about these writings. They went deeper than all my research on fear and anxiety; rather than excitation, I felt consolation. (Making Friends with Death, 33) 28 Richard John Niehaus suggests that “it may be time for a critical look at the psychology-of-death industry that got under way in 1969 when Elisabeth Kubler-Ross set forth her five stages of grieving – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance . . . There are hundreds of books on how to cope with death in order to get on with life.” This genre of death books did not move me, I wanted to develop the awareness of death, not ways of coping with, or ignoring or denying, its reality. Thus, I focused mainly on books with a Buddhist or Eastern spiritual basis rather than the psychology or self-help books; these included The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, The Zen of Living and Dying by Philip Kapleau, and Making Friends with Death by Judith Lief. Lief writes of death as “a profound experience of dissolution . . . We have literally come apart.” (25) Like the other Buddhists, she suggests preparing for death by acknowledging the reality of suffering, accepting changes such as “losing a relationship or a job” as “little deaths” (53) and then “contemplating our death, as a challenge to the
39 death-denying neurosis of our culture.” (70) Similarly to Chodron, she writes that “each time we encounter death,” it reveals how our attempt to hold things together keeps falling apart. (27) These times, “when things fall apart,” like our own death, are particularly opportune moments. In the Tibetan tradition, death is a passage that takes place in stages. “The initial transition from life to death takes place over a number of days,” three to four days.” (23/26) “Dying . . . can be awful,” says Dr. Derek Doyle . . . “but the death itself . . . in 99.9 percent of patients – is peaceful, so tranquil . . . The tension in the face disappears, labored breathing becomes easy . . . suffering just seems to vanish” (104) 29 I like the distinction between dying and death. In The Zen of Living and Dying, Philip Kapleau states that death is “a temporary point between what has been and what will be, and not the black hole of oblivion.” (42) When asked, “‘What is the length of a person’s life?’ Buddha replied, ‘The interval between an inhalation and an exhalation.’” We can imagine each exhalation “as a dying; each inhalation, a rebirth.” (105) 30 Like Lief, Kapleau suggests that we apply Buddha’s Four Noble Truths to our contemplation of death. These are the major “convictions about life which came to him in . . . his six-year quest for enlightenment.” (79/80) “The first of these truths affirms the universality of suffering. The Second Noble Truth is that craving or desire is the source of suffering.” The reason that craving or clinging to things or people inevitably leads to suffering is that “impermanence is a law of life.” The third principle is that there is a way out of this craving which leads to the end of suffering. The Fourth Noble Truth is the way out, the Eightfold Path: “right view, right thought, right speech, right action; right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.” (81/82) Buddha called this intentional way of living a “path.” This book, like Lief’s, is a Buddhist “how to” book – which takes death as a starting place for a spiritual practice of contemplation and meditation. In What is Death? A Scientist Looks at the Cycle of Life, Tyler Volk reverses the terms, “life, thus death,” into “death, thus life.” He cites the end of the Spielberg film, Saving Private Ryan, as an example. As he is dying, Tom Hanks’ last words to Matt Damon are “Earn this.” So many soldiers had died so that one could live. Volk cites the interconnectedness between organisms: “Dead individuals or parts of individuals are subsumed into a gigantic functioning system . . . In contemplating death we must attend to a very large picture indeed.” (12) 31 Like Richard Niehaus, Volk also had a brush with death. The cause was carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty heater when he was in a remote location doing research for a book. For him, the answer to the question “’What is death?’ is to show us how we live.” Doing this is to follow in sacred footsteps, in league with the most profound figures of history who saw how focusing upon death could propel them into self-awareness – Jesus and Buddha.
Volk the scientist wonders about the fear caused by imagining our extinction, which is “a natural, biological fear.” He states that if we could deal with the fear of death consciously rather than inadvertently, then we could create a response to fear. This response would be nourishing rather than debilitating, like fear. “Is this response what the traditions view as the gain from contemplating death?” (60/61) “Can the idea of death produce an emotion or cognition that works wonders for our being?” (65) For him, the answer is “yes,” and the emotion is gratitude. “I have found that one cannot overdo gratitude.” 32 In his last chapter, he reiterates, “Death is the resource of life.” (226) He ends as he began, with the Buddha, “who saw death by the roadside and was motivated to alter his life in the search for awakening.” As I began to face my fear of death, I began to profoundly change in ways that were not visible -- but I had not yet experienced what I was coming to understand. And for Hindu and Buddhist traditions, knowledge that is not lived is not true knowledge. My father would be my teacher -- in death as he was in life. . In September 1993, I was with my father as he died, two weeks after botched emergency surgery for an illness that had baffled countless specialists and outwitted the latest electronic imaging, a tragedy of misdiagnosis and misperception. For the prior three years, the focus had been on my mother’s bone cancer, on the patient rather than the caregiver, on the crises rather than the everyday. While my mother endured great and constant pain, my father lost fifty pounds, quietly, mysteriously. The doctors detached the feeding and oxygen tubes. He could still squeeze our hands. I sat beside his bed in the hospital room, holding his hand, and saw his prana, his breath and energy, gradually, gently, leave his body, limb by limb, beginning with his feet. His breathing would slow, almost stop, then start up again. As his breath became a rattle, literally, I knew death was very close. I thought my heart would break. The pauses between breaths became longer and longer. I wasn’t there when his breath stopped – he was with my mother, his constant partner. But I knew when his spirit had left his body. There was a profound stillness as a sudden wind exploded in silent gusts and swirls outside. I have heard others describe death’s aftereffects in the same way – as stillness mixed with powerful energy. As I sat with his handsome, inert body, holding his hand, with its perfect tapered fingers, it was clear that this long body was only a vehicle for something much greater. What I loved and admired for so many years was my father's impishly sophisticated spirit, his generosity, brilliant intellect and great wit, which would never die. He was not his body. His spirit was also my spirit. As he had tried, futilely, to teach me in life: "If you realize you have enough, you are truly rich. If you stay in the center and embrace death with your whole heart, you will endure forever." 33
As Amy Tan wrote, "When you lose something you love, faith takes over." (131) For that moment, death was not something to fear, it was a part of life itself. In that instant, I knew that true knowledge came only with experience, it cannot be grasped fully by the mind. My realization of my father's greatness became even clearer later. This bank president had no personal possessions that had not been gifts from his family. He had never bought anything for himself, he had given us everything without our realizing it. When I remember him, I am filled with gratitude, which gives me great joy. Sometimes he is very near. Especially when I find coins on the street, or in a newspaper dispenser. As inspiration for his forced walks around Evanston, Illinois, mandated by his cardiologist, my dad looked for money, which he then carefully tallied (date and amount) and dispensed to his young grandchildren every Thanksgiving. I think his record was $150 in 1989. Thus found money is a sign of my father, a sign of wonder; now my sister tallies up her yearly take from her long walks as he always did. . What have I learned? Do I accept the truth of Dr. Sherwin Nuland’s opening paragraph? “Every life is different from any that has gone before it, and so is every death. The uniqueness of each of us extends even to the way we die . . .Every one of death’s diverse appearances is as distinctive as that singular face we each show the world during the days of life.” (3) I am uncertain of the unique individuality of death. This might be true of dying, but I think that death has its protocol and stages that are true across millennia, cultures, nations, ages, and personalities. The primary issue, for me, is no longer death, but the state of “no fear.” Death will happen, whether I expect it or not. The decision will not be up to me. But I could decide to be kind, patient, generous, accepting, and tolerant in life. I could practice fearlessness and gratitude; I could learn about surrender and humility – for I suspect that the best death has these virtues. And I could decide, today, that developing these attributes was my life’s sacred work. This focus on the spiritual aspect of life, my fourth and last stage of life, according to Hinduism, is what I call “age appropriate.” With Siddha Yoga, I had found a path, which would transform my life. I had a place to go and a set of practices to perform that would not only quell my panic and anxiety, but would give me serenity and peace. But more than anything else, I had found a spiritual teacher – whose brilliance was intellectually and emotionally clear. I had the rest of a lifetime of learning ahead of me, a thrilling prospect. For the first time in my life, my mind was (sometimes) quiet. In those still moments, my soul would soar. I have spoken with Gurumayi directly many times and listened to her wondrous talks at numerous intensives and programs. The experience is indescribable, unlike any other. I know I am hearing the truth, I know that she is the real deal, a living Siddha, or saint. I have never known anything or anyone like her. She is pure intelligence, pure grace, shimmering, beautiful, beyond words or images.
42 Although she is very accessible to her devotees, she does not grant interviews. She seeks no publicity, no fame. She is a meditator who loves to chant. Here is a journalist’s take. “Gurumayi has a relaxed method of lecturing which creates the powerful illusion that she is speaking to me directly. She seems psychologically incapable of giving a dry talk; her speeches are laced with easy humor that completely disarms the listener till she drives her profound point home . . . Gurumayi is leading her audience to the truths of Kashmir Shaivism. This tantric school, popularized by the sage Vasugupta in the 8th century A.D. is described in abstruse texts like the Shiva Sutras and Spanda Karikas. For centuries scholars have wrestled with these scriptures, yet Gurumay explains their tenets so clearly a kindergartner can understand.” 34 Following a guru is not easy – for it takes great discipline – The Yoga of Discipline, as the title of one of Gurumayi’s wonderful books puts it. As Gurumayi explains, “the guru’s blessings these practices evoke are in reality the grace of your own higher nature.” The Guru is within the disciple, the Guru principle and the disciple are one. “She and the other masters of the Siddha lineage are human symbols for an enlightened understanding which they [disciples] will ultimately have to find in themselves. The external guru can point the way, guiding and inspiring and even administering doses of shaktipat, but the answer is inside the disciple, in self effort.” (85) I noticed that many of the English translations of ancient Indian scriptures were co-authored by the novelist, screenwriter, and playwright, Christopher Isherwood. I learned more about his years as a disciple in his diary/commentary on the years 1939 to 1976. The book reveals his long and devoted relationship with his guru, Swami Prabhavananda, and his involvement with the Vedanta Center in Los Angeles. 35 The diary also reveals Isherwood’s struggle with the everyday discipline necessary for anyone on a spiritual path. Upon his first meeting with Prabhavananda, Isherwood told him “how he always thought yoga” was “silly superstitious nonsense.” The Swami laughed: “And now you have fallen into the trap.” (24) Which is precisely the way I felt initially. He told the Swami about his homosexuality, and the Swami’s response, in 1939, let him know that he could be his student. “I began to understand that the Swami did not think in terms of sin, as most Christians do . . . The obstacles which the Swami recognized are offenses against yourself.” (26) I love this distinction. The concept of sin, like absolute morality, had always been so destructive – of self (guilt, shame) and of others (judgment, exclusion). (Regarding shame, my child’s notion of “original sin” has pursued me all my life like a dark shadow; it lies in wait to sabotage me by making me feel misery and failure.) I have no idea why, but I felt an intensely strong kinship with Isherwood. It might have been his combination of being intellectually and spiritually enamored with his Guru and placing himself slightly outside the circle of other devotees, or his ongoing struggle with the constant discipline it takes to be a meditator. Isherwood wanted two things, a perfect contradiction – the distractions of what yogis call “sense pleasures” and the attractions of a contemplative, meditative life. I eagerly read about his relation with
43 his teacher, his time spent in the Ashram in Los Angeles, and his struggle to make a complete commitment, continually drawn back into the world and desire. 36 I confess to feeling some of Isherwood’s arrogance and superiority – for these practices are arduous, taking strength and courage of mind and body. I laughed when I read about his response to other spiritual books, here, the psychologist William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, “which we both condemned for its sloppy, imprecise style and academic approach to its subject . . . We like to think of ourselves as now being in a kind of front-line trench, actively engaged in spiritual combat and therefore entitled to sneer, as combat troops sneer at a war story by non-combatant.” (82) Although most of my university colleagues thought I had fallen under the sway of a mindless cult, and imagined the ashram to resemble a spa, I knew the opposite to be true – I was becoming free of destructive habits and defeatist thoughts for the first time in my life. Never had any knowledge been more challenging than this, it was a sparse and disciplined lifestyle for warriors. Isherwood’s ashram in Los Angeles was part of the Vedanta Society, begun in the U.S. by the disciple of Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, who attended the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. After his inspiring talks there, he lectured in the US and England and established the Vedanta Society before returning to India in 1893. Isherwood’s book, dedicated to his long-time partner/lover, Don Bachardy, reveals his devotion to and belief in his Guru, and his difficulty in living the monastic way his Guru instructed him. He visits the ashram regularly, meditates, writes and edits manuscripts, and meets with the Swami. He gossips a bit about ashram participants, giving a sense of the everydayness of ashram living. Although the majority of passages are from the 1940s and 1950s, the book, which begins before WW II, concludes in 1979, three years after the death of his Guru, in 1976. The ending particularly affected me. He writes, in Three Years Later, “The reader may ask: Now that your Swami is dead, what are you left with?” He answers: “I am left with Swami. His physical absence doesn’t make nearly as much difference to me as I had expected it would. I think about him as constantly as I ever did.” (335) “The contact I sometimes think I feel isn’t with him but with what I believe he has now become, the Guru, a being who exists only to help his disciples . . . the mantram is all I have of him and all I need.” These words foretold my future, when my guru would return to India, and then to South Fallsburg, cloistered, in 2004. The only way to see her was to live in the now private Ashram for six months. Now there were no longer visits every three months, no satellite talks, no live intensives to jump-start my sadhana, no darshan to ask personal and spiritual questions of her, no acknowledgements from her voice and eyes, no thrill from bumping into her at the Ashram, no quick fixes to help me deal with my latest crisis. She was inside me, she was thus ever-present. All I had to do was remember this by quieting my mind and stilling my emotions. The Siddha Yoga Teachings and the
44 Guru were one; if I remained close to the teachings, through daily practices, I stayed close to Gurumayi. Isherwood’s ending looked to aging and death. “Now that I am nearly seventyfive, I am mindful that death is near; I no longer avoid the thought of it.” (336) And then always remaining the skeptic, Isherwood writes: ”Quite irrationally, I find I have faith in Swami’s faith, to this extent: if death isn’t the end, then I believe that the life to come will be more or less what he led us to expect.” (337) 37The ancient sages said that at the time of death, our guru would lead us through the transition. This would make death a glorious reunion for a yogi, one who practices yoga, the art of union. I had commitment and enthusiasm and loved this new dimension of my life. As with AA, this was knowledge I could live by, wisdom I could experience and embody. I was a voracious reader of Baba and Gurumayi’s books, taking one with me wherever I went. These books contained all the answers I could ever need for living a dharmic life, a life of right action.
Mothers, Daughters, Death, and Fairy Tales
Jumping back a few years . . . In the fall of 1990, my mother, 75, and my father, 73 and recently retired, moved to Milwaukee, to a condominium down the block from me. Several weeks later, a bone in my mother's back broke, misdiagnosed for two years as osteoporosis. But the crippling agony in my mother's spine was not due to porous bones, rather to unchecked tumors. Mary Margaret Jewson -- a supremely self-sufficient and independent woman who had left her farm home when she was thirteen to work as a cleaning girl in order to attend high school in a small town in northern Wisconsin, worked her way through nurses’ college, subsequently put three of her five sisters through the same college, and for the next thirty years had a full time nursing career -had cancer in all the bones of her body, from her toes to her forehead. It hurt to wash her face or to put her head on the pillow at night. Morphine masked the agony (along with erasing memory and instigating repetition). Radiation, often for weeks, quieted, blessedly, the alien tumors and, for a time, halted the disease, as did chemotherapy. But medication had little effect on anxiety, fear, and mourning for my father, all side-affects, or aftereffects. Now I know that the periods of dormancy were merely lulls before ever more violent cancer storms. While there were constant crises, this experience was marked by duration, stamina, and indeterminacy. For seven years, death was repeatedly imminent, only to be fended off by yet another rally. My mother’s will to live, her unflagging spirit, was bone deep and eons wide. She was her mother’s daughter through and through. The most challenging task was to recover or reinvent continuity in the face of catastrophic outbreaks, to find equanimity in the unpredictable reality of pain and death. It is what women have done brilliantly for centuries around the world, in family after family, privately, domestically. It has gone largely unrecorded, unlike the celebrated discontinuity of war, upheaval, political subterfuge, and other public catastrophes. Where are all the Iraqi women in the coverage of the war? At home, dealing with the aftereffects, all the losses and injuries and traumas and deaths of living in a domestic war zone. Chemotherapy, radiation, X-rays, hospitals, pain, medication, multiple surgeries, and talk of cancer filled our days for the coming six years. So did compassion, courage, and love. The long-playing scene of my mother's bone cancer was a time of reckoning (with the past and with death), and of recognition -- of the fortitude it takes to endure a long illness as its subject but also as its bystander. For some, daughters as well as ailing mothers, this time is not without struggle, even agony. Losing one's independence of body is as difficult as enduring its pain. Germaine Greer's scenario is bleak. For her "it is a bitter irony" that caring for aged parents is done by "menopausal daughters . . . To the
46 weight of depression is added the weight of exhaustion and grief . . . The world seems all loss and death." (277) 38 Sometimes, when I was bone tired and had talked too long about the same old and painful things, the world did get dark. But then I would see the love in my mother's gestures toward me. There are more gains than losses. And there was much I could learn – this was my last chance to learn from my mother and I didn’t want to waste any of this precious time. For I knew by now that giving and taking are interchangeable. But I was fortunate to be sharing this experience with Nancy, my younger (by four years), beautiful sister, who was always there whenever needed. Or close by via telephone. We complained, worried, planned, analyzed . . . for countless hours of mutual talk therapy. We were in this together, as we had been in each other’s lives for fifty years. At home, alone, I read wonderful novels by and about older women, creating a fictive community of women’s experiences. 39 I intellectually empathized with one character, Patrice Umphelby, in Amanda Cross's (aka Carolyn Heilbrun, the literary scholar) mystery, Sweet Death, Kind Death (a title taken from a poem by Stevie Smith). Patrice is a scholar who "fell in love with death sometime in her early fifties," and who had "knowledge of how death gave intensity to middle age as passion and hope gave intensity to youth." In her journals, discovered after her mysterious death, Patrice wrote some observations worthy of a famous literary scholar. "Whenever I read the story of an older woman, I find that though it is written by a woman in her fifties or beyond, she writes only to go back to her youth; she abandons age, experience, wisdom, to search the past, usually for romance. . . . I am an intelligent woman of fifty-five, and all the story I have is in the present. . . . For me, stories of youth are tired stories. But the story of age, of maturity before infirmity, has never been told.” 40 But it was a film by a Dutch filmmaker that provided the most inspiration and consolation for me – a film I fell in love with. Every screening has moved me more deeply, and I feel an acute, uncanny kinship with Marlene Gorris, its maker. 41 The film, Antonia's Line (1995), opens with the day of Antonia's death and then retraces events of her life which is composed of the loving connections among four generations of women. The great love is that between mother and daughter, portrayed through intercut looks between them, granting strength and self-sufficiency. This love between women is compassionate and tolerant enough to include others. In a series of lovely outdoor feasts, the family table expands, eventually including a family of men. Then, with age and death, it begins to grow smaller. The film which begins on the day of death ends on the moment of death. Death inspires the film, death, coming to the end of it, is the culmination. The film opens on a mirror shot (which we only realize retroactively) of an older woman in bed beneath a blue blanket. A female voice-over tells us that "She knew that this would be her last day. Antonia knew when enough was enough. She would summon the family and inform them of her death." As the voice-over continues to relate Antonia's
47 interior thoughts, including the details of the funeral ceremony, Antonia gets up and walks toward the camera (really the mirror). In the close shot, she "thinks of her granddaughter," and says "It's time to die." The camera dollies back, revealing the mirror shot. "She got out of bed to begin the last day of her life." The film's end will return to finish this day, and this opening scene. After this prologue come the film's titles. The camera accompanies Antonia through the rooms of her farm house, moving outside to give us a sense of this place. The film will fill this home with memories, with Antonia's family of four generations. As Antonia makes her tea, she looks out the kitchen window. Cut to a frontal shot of her face. Dissolve to her past, the story of her life, which is a story of her relationship with her daughter, grand-daughter and then great grand-daughter, as we will discover. Antonia’s Line is a story of lineage itself, of the continuity of generations, of women's relationships of caring, reciprocity, and mutuality. While there are tragedies, crises and dramas in the film, continuity enfolds these catastrophes within the embrace of time, the passing seasons, and within maternal, familial love. Antonia’s Line is a film about the cycle of life and death, in which death is a part of life. 42 This story of the past begins when Antonia and her daughter, Danielle, arrive on a bus and walk to the home in a country village that Antonia left twenty years ago. We immediately notice the strong and sensual way Antonia strides, purposefully, head held high. She is a powerful and sensuous force, and we can feel the closeness and admiration between mother and daughter. They are one, connected by intercut looks of mutual understanding. Antonia has come home to bury her bald and ribald mother, who, to their surprise, comes to life to make a last rude criticism and some lewd remarks. Danielle will see her spirit in church, later, awakening from her coffin in a surreal, or grotesque, rendition of "My Blue Heaven," a scene reminiscent of Dennis Potter's musical interludes in his BBC productions. This, and other surreal moments, parody the hypocrisy and intolerance of the Protestant church. As Antonia and Danielle stroll confidently through the village, we are introduced to an extended family consisting of eccentrics and outcasts. The characters take on allegorical dimension, as the familial is fancifully taken into myth and Eros. Gorris has created a world that represents Antonia's expansive energy, her powers of creation and inclusion, her wisdom and compassion. Crooked Finger is a grizzled intellectual who lives in a dark room, closed off from the outside, from light, immersed in books by German philosophers professing the meaningless horror of life. Mad Madonna is a middle-aged woman who lives alone and bays at the moon in sadness. Her Catholic religion has kept her from her lover, the Protestant man who lives beneath her. Olga owns a cafe where the men drink, and where the villagers gather. The voiceover narrator – we will hear it throughout the film and ultimately understand that it is the voice of Sarah, Antonia’s great-granddaughter -- says: "And so Antonia and her daughter returned . . . the women settled into their house." The seasons pass in glorious shots of the farm and the countryside as Antonia and Danielle work, painting, plowing, milking, planting, and walking. The film's spaces are connected by
48 Antonia and Danielle, looking at each other, walking arm in arm, and working side by side. What is compelling about the film's women, eventually consisting of four generations (five, if we count Antonia’s mother), is how very different they are -- in mind, body, and spirit. Their differences are not sources of conflict but pleasures, traits to be admired. Yet along with religious intolerance, there is domestic violence and even evil in this small town. Deedee is raped by her cruel brother, Pitte, and rescued by Danielle who pitchforks the rapist in his genitals. Looney Lips is tormented by the children and brought home by Antonia. They become part of this extended family and will fall in love and marry. Danielle goes to art school and becomes a painter, as more seasons pass. The voice-over says, "And so Danielle went to Art School and was happy. Weeks turned into years." The love between Antonia and Danielle is a magnet attracting Farmer Bas and his five sons. Bas inquires about marriage to Antonia saying, as if it were an incentive: "My sons need a mother." Antonia replies with great logic: "But I don't need your sons." Bas: "Don't you want a husband either?" Antonia: "What for?" So, in friendship only, Bas and his sons join the family feasts, bringing food. Danielle wants a baby, but not a husband. Antonia helps her find "the services of a man" in another town, and waits outside the hotel during sex. Danielle gives birth to Therese. "And so the years passed," says the narrator. Therese is beautiful and a genius. As a young girl, she understood Crooked Finger, talking with him about philosophies of time. They "enfolded each other in their heart." Antonia finally gives Bas what he has waited so long and patiently for: "You still can't have my hand but you can have the rest," once a week. But Bas wants more and builds a small house for their trysts. The voiceover: "Time gave birth again and again, and in contentment reproduced itself." The table of the family feasts now grows even longer. Letta joins, with her two children, which pleases the ex-priest, who will keep her happily pregnant. Therese's teacher, Lara, and Danielle fall in love. "And then love burst out everywhere," precedes a sexual montage of consummation scenes among various couples. But after this climax, the cycle of life passes into a cycle of death 43 that is broken, if only for a moment, when Therese, now a brilliant mathematician and musician, becomes pregnant, comes home, and gives birth to the beautiful, red-headed Sarah. Danielle, Therese, and Sarah live and work with Antonia on the farm Sarah, the great granddaughter, is a lovely and curious child of around six or seven, who carries around a notebook, writing stories and asking the adults questions about death. Sarah is the film's voice-over, the grown-up story-teller; once she was the listener to her grandmother’s tales, which have become her inheritance. "Time flowed, season after season, wanting to end the exhausting round of life and death." 44 Sarah talks about death with her great grandmother, Antonia. At a family feast, Sarah watches everyone, including ghosts of the past, subtly and almost imperceptibly become their younger selves, and dance. It is a joyous moment of life's summation before death.
49 The film returns to the day of opening scene. Antonia tells Sarah that "I'm going to die today." The family is gathered around Antonia's bed. She is dying. The voice over changes into the first person "I", the grown-up now connected to the young girl, the great-granddaughter, Sarah, with the strawberry blonde hair: "I wouldn't leave because I wanted to be there." Antonia dies. The words, "And as this my chronicle concludes, nothing has come to an end," are printed on the screen. As the seasons pass, so do generations, our daughters and then our granddaughters becoming women with minds and souls of their own. Like Antonia, being part of, then watching (and then relinquishing), this wondrous process has been the great delight of my life. My age has made this joy possible. Antonia's Line remembered for me my grandmother's country life of faith, family, and physical work, and the eccentric and disabled characters who populated the Wisconsin town of Cadott. I didn't identify with the women characters, all of whom, even the actress who plays Antonia as a great grandmother, are young enough to preclude that investment. But I did identify with the portrayal of the generational passage of time and with the close relations between women. This story, from another continent and a director I have never met, is remarkably similar to my own history. Antonia's Line is a distant cousin to Rose Sedlacek's line. Like Antonia, my grandmother lived and worked on a farm near a small town. Disabled characters with strange names, tormented by farm boy bullies, became local legend. During the summer harvest, outdoor tables were piled high with food. Family dinners meant twenty to forty people and often more. Like Danielle, my mother had an artistic and serious nature, along with dark hair. Like Therese, I never felt as if I fit in. As a teenager, I loved ideas, particularly existentialism, thought about death, and eventually would have blonde hair (not natural). I was awkward with motherhood, never knowing quite what to do in the maternal role. But the most uncanny resemblance between art and life is between the gorgeous child, Sarah, and my daughter, Dae, who has strawberry blonde hair (natural), porcelain skin, and a beautiful face of light and happiness. As a young girl, Dae, like Sarah, would observe life around her. Dae was born with an old and wise soul. And Dae gave birth to Remi, who, at a beautiful six years, is grace and sunshine itself – the best of all of us. Dae inherited my grandmother Rose’s copper hair and her joyous laugh, as did Remi whose laughter is a source of life itself. When Rose Sedlacek, my grandmother, was 103, my mother and I made our last (the fifth of eight or so) pilgrimage to Cadott, Wisconsin, the small farming town in Northern Wisconsin where my grandmother lived all of her life, the town where my mother was born. Main Street had not changed, even a single building, in fifty years, the time of my memory. 45 Although delicate of stature, Rose was an independent woman, self-sufficiently living in her own home until she was 98. With red hair down to the small of her back,
50 she bore and raised ten children on a large dairy farm that had been built by her father before she was born. My mother, Mary Margaret, was the first born, in 1915, one of six beautiful sisters. Rose never had time or money for makeup. After morning prayers at 4 am, she labored until evening prayers at 7:30, canning, baking, cleaning, sewing, milking, and gardening. I spent my summers on this farm, a city farm girl, wearing jeans, driving tractor, and cleaning the barn and the chicken coop. My memories of these summer times are indelible. Rose's family provided great joy, and the discipline that came from hard work became her salvation. Her staunch Catholic faith gave her sublime purpose. Every bit of life was dedicated to God, every action became a service for God, and every morsel of food was a gift from God. Although there was little money, it was a life of abundance, easy laughter, and lively talk. Self-reliance was a given. Rose bequeathed all these qualities to her ten children. As the oldest of Rose's 75 grandchildren, this mixed blessing of spiritual faith and worldly determination has been my inheritance. Or as Kathleen Woodward puts it more theoretically, my identity, or female identity, is "at base generational identity," which links us to "generations ahead and behind through the relation of caring." (99) 46 Its traits are "reciprocity, mutuality, and continuity," (107) along with home-made bread, jam, chicken soup, poppy seed cake, and pies, hundreds, even thousands, of home-made pies in chocolate, apple, peach, and rhubarb. Nothing mattered more to my grandmother and to my mother than family. Food was their love made deliciously real, plentiful. It was a grey, overcast day as my mother and I walked into St. Joseph's hospital. We entered my grandmother's room and I saw a skeleton, shrunken with age, gaunt with time. This shriveled body didn't look at all like my grandmother. The eyes in the skull were vacant, unseeing. The teeth were on the nightstand. "We must be in the wrong room," I whispered to my mother. But she walked to the bed, leaned over and said "Mom, it's Margaret." The eyes opened and saw my mother. The face of a stranger suddenly transformed into the familiar expression of my beautiful grandmother. She smiled radiantly and clasped my mother's hands to her heart with extraordinary force, as if to let go would be to lose each other forever. "Margaret, oh Margaret, you're here." Light poured into the room. How strange, I thought. There is no sun outside. I watched my grandmother's spirit come to life, re-inhabit her body, upon sight of her eldest daughter. I was fascinated by the simultaneity of my vision with my memory, the timelessness of sight leavened by love for these two women. I was seeing my 104 year old grandmother and my 82 year old mother as they were now and the way I saw them when I was a child. It's true, then, thought I. The spirit never ages, only the body ages. Something that is eternal and ageless was peering out of my grandmother's almost unseeing eyes. And if I could not exactly see it, I could experience it, feel it. It was energy, it was bright, it was illuminating.
51 There was much to cherish in this scene playing out before me, and much to learn. As I looked at my mother's back, weakened and bent awkwardly by tumors and radiation, leaning over to embrace her mother, now just skin and bones too frail to walk, I felt the power of maternal love, of generational love. Each was brought to life by the other. I suspect that their mutual desires to care for each other, daughter for mother and mother for daughter, animate their very souls. I knew the truth of these words in Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club: "You must peel off your skin, and that of your mother, and her mother before her." 47 Our mothers are in our bones. Later I would remember this scene when I read Ann Tyler's Ladder of Years: "Didn't it often happen that aged parents die exactly at the moment when other people (your husband, your adolescent children) have stopped being thrilled to see you coming? But a parent is always thrilled, always dwells so lovingly on your face as you are speaking." ( 48129) Woodward analyzed it best. "In this [magical and melancholic] scene is represented one of the deep mysteries of the body -- that in psychic space our bodies can lose their boundaries. . . At stake is generational identity, which is bound up with two wishes -- to be taken care of by the mother and to care for the child. But if years before the differences were clear, now they are indistinct. . . In age, who is the mother? And who is the daughter?" (Aging, 100) My mother’s worst anguish was that she could no longer care for her mother. And my grandmother’s agony was that she could no longer travel to be with my mother/her daughter. Who was the mother? We all were. The daughter? We all were. For Amy Tan, only when the daughter comes to know her mother, often in adversity, can she know her own strength and wisdom. Only when the daughter can accept and have compassion for the mother can she accept and have compassion for herself. To do this, the daughter has to hear her mother's story, granting her the authority that comes with history, through generation. As Margaret Gullette reminds us, point of view matters -- and there is much at stake. The objectifying, young gaze "can erase the idea of old age as normal," 49 along with taking over the material of older women's lives and deaths. "If parents told their own stories, we might learn how burdensome the loving Gaze of the Survivor can feel." (210) "Long before we are dying, we suffer as if we had been silenced: the master narrative takes our material and tells our life story." As Woodward cautions, "Nervous anxiety is masked by a denial of another's subjectivity in a way that appears to be reassuring but is in reality silencing and repressive." So, guided by wise women, I would ask myself: Am I listening? Am I hearing? Am I learning? Am I loving? Is my heart open? Whose subjectivity am I talking about? And after six years of daily life together with my mother and with cancer, I concluded: Ours.
52 Coincident with my mother's first tumor in her upper spine, I developed acute pains in my neck, which didn't subside until her tumors receded. Although attributed to rheumatoid arthritis, I have always known the true origin of my pain. It comes from the ancient bond so strikingly portrayed by Tan. An old mother, a grandmother, Popo, is dying. The grand-daughter is the privileged viewer, witnessing a scene of private devotion as I did in Cadott. Her mother is making soup in an ancient Chinese tradition to cure her mother. She cuts a piece of meat from her arm, adds it to the soup, and then feeds her dying mother. The grand-daughter observes this act of love and sacrifice. "I could see the pain of the flesh and the worth of the pain . . . The pain of the flesh is nothing. . . because sometimes that is the only way to remember what is in your bones. You must peel off your skin, and that of your mother, and her mother before her. Until there is nothing. No scar, no skin, no flesh." Our love for our mothers is generation’s old, bone deep. "Here is how I came to love my mother. How I saw in her my own true nature. What was beneath my skin. Inside my bones." (48) And this mother love is bequeathed to our children, with the same ferocity and totality. I can feel my love for Dae and Rob in my very bones, in the deepest part of my inner self. And Dae feels an incomparable, intense passion for her daughter, Remi. This is the law of continuity, the principle that nothing passes from one state to another without passing through all the intermediate states. To reach old age, we have to achieve something, to learn something; we have to gain true knowledge, perhaps even the wisdom that true love is self love. Thus, old age, and finally death, could be the culmination, the highpoint, of everything and every time that came before. Death would be an arrival, a coming home -- an experience of unity, of oneness with God and the universe, with generations past and present. At the Theater: Three Tall Women This is what the last scene of Edward Albee's play about his stepmother, Three Tall Women, portrayed -- the supreme achievement of reaching the end, of dying. 50 The three women are delineated by age. The first, A, is "a very old woman; thin, autocratic, proud, as together as the ravages of time will allow." The second, B, "looks rather as A would have at 52." The third, C, "looks rather as B would have at 26." In the second act, A, the old woman, is comatose, dying in a hospital bed. Only after her spirit came energetically to life did I realize these three very different characters were stages of one woman's life. C, 26, begins her monologue in the closing scene wondering about "the happy times . . . I haven't had them yet, have I? I had some, of course . . . Maybe all you can remember is the memory of it. . . I know my best times haven't happened yet. They're to come. Aren't they? Please? I'm not a fool, but there is a lot of happiness along the way. Isn't there? And isn't it always ahead?" Character B, 52, answers: "the happiest time? Now . . . half of being an adult done, the rest ahead of me. Old enough to be a little wise, past being really dumb. . . fifty
53 is a peak. . . What I like most about being where I am is that there's a lot I don't have to go through anymore . . . it's the only time you get a three-hundred-and-sixty degree view -- you see in all directions. What a view!" Then A, the old woman, takes center stage and speaks straight to us. "You're both such children. The happiest moment of all? Coming to the end of it, when all the waves cause the greatest woes to subside, leaving breathing space, time to concentrate on . . . the end of it. Going through the whole thing and coming out. . . There's a difference between knowing you're going to die and knowing you're going to die. The second is better; it moves away from the theoretical. . . . Coming to the end of it, yes. So. There it is. . . That's the happiest moment." (She puts her hands out, takes A's and B's, and looks out at us from center stage.) "When it's all done. When we can stop." (109) I knew the simple truth of these words. All movement onstage and within the audience came to rest in a poignant conclusion of stillness and realization. It was, and is, an extraordinary, satiating cessation and revelation. The play's passage through three generations, three ages of being, is one of becoming, becoming old, a process of generational knowing. The most interesting and powerful character is the old woman. She is the summation of all the life that comes with old age. This knowledge, this history, this story of achievement is what I see in my mother. I hope this is what my daughter, Dae, who looks like me, will see in me. For in many ways, we are all one and the same. Like the discrepancy between her indomitable spirit and her collapsed body, I, too, see the split between my mother's ailing body and her formidable mind and soul, which grow more brilliant and more valiant as her body weakens and is bent. And I see my mother vacillate between knowing she is dying and knowing she is dying. "The second is better," for it embodies all of her well-earned selves, or ages. It has little to do with fear. In Albee's play, the "older woman -- the woman of the third generation" is a figure of "knowledge who represents the difference which history, or time, makes." The play literally embodies, in a single character, "a sense of mutual recognition between generations separated by time but brought together by the wish for understanding that is connection." The older woman is granted a point of view, and the authority that comes from history and experience. Likewise, age is brought into visibility, taken out of the margins where it has lodged with fear. Woodward calls this "generational simultaneity," based on "generational similarity more than difference." Her theory comes alive in this play which takes generational simultaneity literally. I want to return to the figure of Freud's protective shield, or Reischutz, seeing it now through my double vision of my grandmother, my mother's struggle with cancer, and the character A's doubling as body and spirit. In one sense, the shield is the physical body, which changes and decomposes in time, becoming stiff, crusty, leaky, dry, eventually dead. In his musings on Freud's distinction between the death instincts and the life instincts, Samuel Weber describes a "crust that is scorched" which" shields against powerful energies which would 'slaughter' it. The outermost surface loses the structure
54 proper to living matter, becoming inorganic . . . 51 The outer layers die to save the inner ones; the envelope sacrifices itself for the core." (Weber, 142/145) The core, then, would be the inner self, the spirit that is changeless, the radiant energy that animated my grandmother's shrunken body, stiff with 104 years of life. As so many older women report, inside the aging body is the youthful self. It is my mother's luminous courage, generosity, and love for her family that became more apparent with each onslaught of pain. So often during her struggle, I saw my mother as a vulnerable girl, working so hard to be independent just as she did so many years ago. The core would also be the wisdom and spirit of Albee’s old woman, taking center stage as her comatose body lay in bed, stage left. The distinction between the "crust" and the "core" comes close to my experience in the park of an inner world encased in an outer covering. I wonder, is this the way my grandmother saw my mother that grey day? Did she dwell in that interior space of freedom? If my mother found this place, did she go beyond pain? This is what I have been told is possible. The phrase about the instincts that continues to intrigue Freud scholars is the urge "to restore an earlier state of things." For Weber, in referring to the Upanishads and the figure of the Atman (from Hindu scriptures), Freud is gesturing "to the story of a unity that has been lost," "a wholeness that has been separated from itself." In Hinduism and Buddhism, the story of reincarnation is similar. The soul, or the subtle body, keeps taking on physical body after body throughout millennia, until the moment of its enlightenment, when it finally merges with God, achieving the unity it has lost, and leaves the endless cycle, the wheel of birth and death. This experience of unity, this long journey toward wholeness, has come, for me, through meditation. It is an experience of utter stillness, of silence, exquisite, ecstatic. I think Woodward's more extensive comparison gets it right when she links Freud's life instincts to movement and sounds, and the death instincts to rest and silence. (48-49) "When we can stop," when we come to rest, in silence, we come home. And this is what everyone is looking for, this is what life is all about, the moment of death. The women who populate these pages, real and fictive, friends and family, scholars and writers, have given my life continuity -- the continuity of their love, of their stories, and of their wisdom.
How I Learned to Read the Wall Street Journal. . . Money, the Market, and my Mother: A Love Story
My amateur knowledge, Siddha Yoga meditation, like the 12 Steps of AA, relies on shared experiences, on collective support, and on spiritual values. The mutual goal is to transform our lives and our thoughts by quieting our minds. Service to others is healing and ennobling. Both practices tell stories of the self to impart knowledge. In sharp contrast, my third amateur knowledge -- investing, in both the economic and emotional senses – relies on numbers, statistics, information, and emotion. And that is where death comes in again. For the last seven years of her life, from 1990 to 1997, as she fought her prolonged, excruciating battle with bone cancer, my mother taught me about the stock market. As I, along with my sister, Nancy, cared for her, we watched CNBC -- the TV financial network -- and read the Wall Street Journal, along with Barron’s, Value Line, and Investor’s Daily, the stock markets triumvirate, together. For me, initially, “the market” was a safe topic, a way to ward off talk of Catholicism, politics, or feminism. My mother thought my career, along with sales of my books, would immeasurably improve if I dropped “all that feminist stuff.” Although I was extremely close to my mother, our differences were stark. She was a devoted, doctrinaire Catholic who loved Ronald Reagan and the GOP, a true conservative. I loved Eastern spiritual practices and, since 1965, was a liberal. I taught (and lived) feminist film theory while my mother believed that “real” (not her daughter, I was an imposter) feminists were wrecking men and marriage. Although my mother had a long and gratifying career as a private duty nurse, she held it in secondary status to her jobs as wife and mother. Like teacher, nurse and caregiver could be easily blended, or subsumed, within family domesticity. But my mother had a second career, an amateur career that would become more important. And this career, she passionately loved. For my mother, a self-taught and highly successful individual investor with thirty or more years’ experience, the stock market -- or as Mom said, “the market” -- had become an occupation and a dedication. It would become an involvement in the present moment that distracted us from fear and death -- which says something about the complex reception of television, the way television is refigured by the personal, the reality of individual lives. Our economic investment in stocks could momentarily alleviate our emotional investment in each other – the fear of losing each other, fear of the aloneness that was coming. We had talked on the telephone at least once, usually more, every day of my adult life. Now that she was living down the block from me, I saw her every day, for seven years.
56 I learned about the stock market as a somewhat condescending defense. The world of finance and investing was of little interest or value to me. I thought that investing in the market, like business itself was tediously dull. (At the same time, I was highly respectful of my father’s, banking, and my sister’s, accounting, professions.) I would discover the stock market’s high drama, its tragic dimensions, its unpredictable suspense, I would learn to read the signs and decipher the logic, and I would gain respect, along with skepticism, for its successful practitioners. Much later, during the financial meltdown of 2008, I would chastise their greed. Fortunately, as I began to learn, the order of things changed so fast that change could be seen -- the Cold War ended around 1989 as the Soviet Union collapsed and the Berlin Wall was torn down -- and the market spread rampantly over the globe, shortly followed by digital connective technologies including the World Wide Web and the internet. All it takes is a trip to China to see the rapid spread of market forces, particularly consumerism. Shanghai in 2005 was a glistening shopping mall, resonant of Hong Kong or New York, yet much bigger, with famous-architect skyscrapers as far as the eye can see, and multiple designer malls packed with thousands of thin, young, bluejeaned shoppers. While the American tourists flock to the designer knockoff malls, the young Chinese buy the real thing at the rows of luxury shops; the aura of the original is the lure rather than the bargain of the copy. As Susan Buck Morss pointed out in a brilliant essay, the economy was discovered, and it was an extraordinary revision of the social contract. 52 The notion of progress as the unlimited increase of objects produced for sale was a defining moment of modernity. The crucial role of fabricated things, the significance of material objects, and their money equivalents as the mediation of social relations were startling changes. This modernity has come to China now, along with Vietnam, where business is everywhere. Cambodia, Laos, and even Burma (Myanmar), are on their way. Business has "transformed technological speed from a looming, exponential threat into a lifestyle decision, a hip sensibility." (Johnson, 6 53) From being a catastrophe machine, technology is a cultural synthesizer; how harmful can something be which can find the best deal for us or order pizza, on its own, for us? With our computer interface, Windows, a desktop, we are all little business people sitting at our desks and sorting through our folders -- all on a system, the Arpanet, created by the U.S. “militaryindustrial complex” of old, its system of dispersed electrical packets, code, and interaction designed as a back-up military communication system, something that would work during a nuclear attack. If one communication point or source were knocked out, information, already broken up into packets, would travel a different route, or several routes. The coded message would be reassembled from these dispersed packets at the endpoint. All of this was funded by the US government, in tandem with the Engineering Schools of several prestigious universities. But the system, linked to universities, was to be open and free, not necessarily a money making machine. The new world order of business, finance, and digital technology -- or money -was made official during a conference in 1992: Clinton's Economic Summit, broadcast
57 for four days live on ESPN. The words from the CEO of Comcast, the television cable company, were prophecy. He thanked his father for changing his business from leather belts to communication systems. The latter make money through time by giving us electrical access, a shift from product to process, from materiality to ethereality, from reality to virtuality. Shortly afterward, the digital boom began; technology stocks took off in 1995 and 96, as did internet plays, crashed in 2001, and then climbed back in 2005 with the reality of e-commerce and Google’s profits from the interplay between internet search and advertising. Traditional communication media – newspapers, books, television networks, and movies -- are all under siege in their stand-alone version, with forms, and contents that can be absorbed into digital, personal networks. Entertainment has meshed with communication and information to create a portable multiplex that is graphic, tactile, interactive, mobile, seemingly private and individualistic, or communal and networked, and perhaps most importantly, highly profitable, in fractional increments. 54 But that's enough scholarship and thought. Back to me. In addition to my antimoney, materialist (now a negative term for a real shopper, it used to mean quasi Marxism), 1960s heritage, women have not been historically associated with the money economy, despite Charlotte Gilman Perkins and other feminist activists’ advice a century ago. This gender divide is still maintained in my profession -- in film studies, the world of business and money has belonged largely to men who write empirical film history, while the world of theory was women's terrain -- the domain of pleasure and narrative leisure. The financial is separated off from the sexual – men from women, the money economy from the sexual economy, in essence, creating the division of subject (often male) from object (frequently female). In 1951, on “I Love Lucy”, Fred Mertz said it best: there are two kinds of people in the world, earners and spenders, men and women -ironic, coming from a guy who never did any work. The question -- For love or money? -- is asked and still incorrectly answered for women. Just think about Titanic. The James Cameron film and attendant publicity were all about money, wealth contained in the class division between decks, in the recreated, lavish scenes of old money, the upper class, and their demolition, and in the huge cost overruns of the production. The tale of money, technology, and big brave male egos retrieving and rejuvenating history, all culminating in blockbuster profits and awards, Titanic was a supreme money machine. But only on the surface is this film a tale of love and sex -- deep down it is a story of money and death. What made the film of a historical disaster so resonant was the figuring of our fears of technological disaster, maybe even Y2K, by echoing an earlier communications failure, the unsinkable Titanic itself. The ship had the most advanced, sophisticated communication and navigational technology. It was a high-tech ship, hence unsinkable. This early 20th Century technology disaster was also a catastrophe of communication systems. Amidst all the film’s high tech spectacle of money and masculinity, Cameron resurrected, along with the ship's silent ruins, an old movie star and an old woman, Gloria
58 Stuart. In beautiful extreme close-up, she remembers her youth -- telling her tale to an audience of charmed listeners. It is a story of female desire and presumably great first time sex in the cargo hold, immediately after which the ship goes prow up in a massive phallic gesture (a technological and mechanical tour de force) and then sinks. Unlike so many Hollywood endings, the woman lives to have a life of adventure and to grow old. A remarkable, unusual ending! However, in one fell and stupid swoop, Cameron reveals cultural bias at the end, when old Rose, in a private moment on the deck of the boat, presumably remembering her great love (Leo DiCaprio) who died, drops her fortune, the big diamond necklace, into the sea, choosing adolescent romance over money. Then she joins the past, her sleep turning into the white screen of death that ends the film. Now, I've long suspected that romance was a male invention to keep women out of the money economy and hence dependent and often apart from other women, ambition, and achievement. No woman old or young and in her right mind would be this foolish, this romantically sentimental, particularly an old woman, just before death, all in the name of first love, first sex -- no matter how Titanic it was! She would have a) spent it or b) given the jewel, her fortune, her legacy, to her faithful granddaughter, who cared for her, a figure given short shrift in the film (despite the actress’s off-screen affair with Cameron). It's that love between (grand) mother and daughter that culture keeps failing to understand and to honor. That love is our heritage and our legacy. Sometimes love comes in the form of money. My mother’s did. But it was more than money – it was her achievement, her independence, her financial acuity, particularly significant given that my father was the moneyman, the respected, savvy banker in the community. My mother was self-taught and trusted herself rather than the many investment brokers who advised her to get professional advice. And hers was a rare and valuable legacy because the field of finance had largely been closed to women of my mother’s generation. In many ways, this was her feminist legacy to me and to my sister, Nancy. But she never would have acknowledged that out loud. I had made little monetary progress, in life or in thought, by 1990, when my parents, retired in their mid 70s and healthy, moved to Milwaukee, down the block from me, a daunting twist to my life. My father dropped off his copy of The Wall Street Journal every morning, very early. A conservative harangue, thought the superior intellectual Me. Groan. But dutiful and loving daughter that I was, I grudgingly began to read the front page feature pieces -- discovering that they were terrific analyses of commodity culture, particularly electronic media; in fact, I learned more about the economics of the television and developing internet industries than I ever had from academic scholarship. The newspaper began to chart the growth and history of digital culture and the internet in the technology companies it covered. I began to research digital media and the history of the internet, incorporating this new medium into my classes at the University. I created a course titled, “Arts of Entertainment: Film, TV, & the Internet.” It was packed, as was “Digital Arts and Cultures.”
59 When I noticed that articles on the behavior of the stock market acknowledged the centrality of sentiment and emotion, often fear, and also perfectly illustrated my argument about obsessive logic, derived from Freud, I was hooked, at least by the literary and theoretical aspect of the paper. I included the stock market in my book, High Anxiety, quoting heavily from several pieces; the market crash of 1987 was a perfect illustration of catastrophe logic, as was the future potentially rife for a technological catastrophe, an erasure of money which was rapidly becoming only coded, electronic numbers with no tangible material base or even paper record. But I threw Section C of the Journal, the one with all the columns of numbers and confusing symbols – the lists of stocks -- away. Remember that before online financial sites and trading on the internet, these numbers in newspapers were extremely valuable, often the reason for subscribing in the first place. In 2006, the New York Times finally decided to drop this costly section – repetitive and outmoded in the new age of electronic numbers and “realtime” quotes that run all day on the bottom of the TV screen or online, all the time. When I chanced upon Georg Simmel's 1909 The Philosophy of Money, I had an epiphany -- his was a logic of modernity akin to Freud's on obsession, dependent on the endlessness of desire and the irretrievable, illusory divide between subject and object, with money, not sexuality, as principle agent (as it was for Freud). 55 Regarding economic desire: Adam Smith argues that this “state of things depends on desire not being satiated, on being deflected onto other things, on the deceptive promise that “happiness will be gained through the possession of objects, that promise itself, a necessary decoy.” Furthermore, Simmel’s (we think that things will make us happy but this is a decoy) was a logic of contradiction, created by thought, written during an earlier, in many ways comparable, period of enthusiasm for electric and popular culture -- the creation, profusion, and celebration in the early 1900s of new electric machines of entertainment (moving picture machines) and new ways to make them and money. It's not the internet which is so exciting to Wall Street -- it's the recent belief that it can make money, from nothing except numbers and electricity, the alchemists dream. The internet is as much a process as it is a product. Businesses can be virtual, portable, and interactive. For Simmel, the money economy is paradoxical, separating people and creating strong economic bonds. Money makes the division of production possible, and money inevitably ties people together. Like F.W. Taylor, Simmel linked money with time, punctuality with the monetary system. However, this did not apply to domestic labor, which didn't count. The household and the women bound to maintaining it weren't measured; the money economy, in a word whose root means household, would be the terrain of men. For Simmel, money is the embodiment of the value of things; it also represents the division between subject and object. Money is the relation between objects, it is pure interchangeability; money is a symbol of economic value, because economic value is nothing but the relativity of exchangeable objects. "The ability to construct symbolic objects attains its greatest triumph in money . . . for money represents pure interraction." (129/130) Simmel anticipates virtuality and interactivity -- the key traits of digital
60 culture and the internet, a world order based only on numbers and a sampled reality, stored tokens of numbers, codes rather than traces of events. Simmel's turn of the century analysis has become prophecy -- of the astronomical valuations and fluctuations of the everyday stock market in 1999 and in 2007/2008 -"The increase in the amount of money will cause a constant sense of disorder and psychic shocks . . . accelerating the pace of life. Shocks and agitations come from money, changes in prices." (499) The swings in late 2008 were more dramatic than the Great Depression, which suddenly didn’t seem so old, so moldy, in fact, so historical. The stock market’s ups and downs never, seriously never, made my mother anxious. She remained perfectly calm in the storms, buying stock at the depressed prices, never scared into panic selling. On Black Monday in 1987, when everyone was freaking, my mother calmly bought crashing bank stocks. When they dropped further, she bought more. For many years, I got dividends and stock splits from her prescient buying that day. When the subprime crisis hit in August, 2007, I almost sold the same bank shares I had inherited – but after doing something my mother never, never did – obtaining advice from a professional, a hedge fund manager whose expertise was bank stocks -- I held on as they began to drop. My mother would have sold. But I still couldn’t let go of her. So I still have a few shares of Citigroup, down from 55 to below 3; and hundreds of shares of Bank America, down from 44 to 20 and landing around a low of 3. With history only three months long, restated with each quarterly earnings, the market is an endless deferral, an infinite series of connections, of binarisms -- up or down, buy or sell, gain or loss. It is pure interchangeability; money is a symbol of economic value, because economic value is nothing but the relativity of exchangeable objects. Simmel foreshadows the global economy of electronic money, across every hemisphere of the planet. "Owing to the abstractness of its form, money has no definite relationship to space; it can exercise its effects upon the most remote areas” (504) . . . increasing “the pace of life,” (505) “feverish commotion,” (506) the anxiety and “nervousness” of the stock market. Ellen Ullman, a computer programmer, describes the increased abstraction -- bits, "units . . . transferred between electronic accounts is the true nature of money" – “we no longer need real estate . . . which bank is real. . . the one of marble or the one with silvery sleek technology . . . neither . . . both are constructions designed to reassure us . . . you can trust us. Give us your money . . . once we were impressed by buildings, now we are impressed with virtual online spaces, that's all." She then compares computer spaces to suburbia -- both turn "real places into anyplace." (80). Echoing Adam Smith, Simmel even explains the frenzy for internet stocks that took off in 1999. “It is quite erroneous to believe that the significance and intellectual potential of modern life has been transferred from the individual to the masses. Rather it has been transferred to . . . the objects; it lives in the immense abundance . . . of machines, products, the growth of objective culture . . . the more impersonal an object, the better it is suited to more people." (483) The world of Ipod, Razr, Treo and Palm --
61 little digital entertainment/information machines – is an “immense abundance;” it is hardly an overstatement to say that these objects do exemplify the “significance and intellectual potential of modern life.” Yet, what of the personal computer? If the digital question has shifted, as Sherry Turkle suggests, from the creation of computer machine intelligence to the creation of computer life, to agents, objective culture is taking on its own subjectivity. 56 As Steven Johnson argues, "The enormous power of the modern digital computer depends on this capacity for self-representation." (Johnson, 15) And what is this if not subjectivity? Web 2.0 and 3.0 are moving in the direction of extending our subjectivity. Abstraction, interaction, virtuality, relativity, exchangeability -- all based on code, on numbers -- no wonder scholarship has taken a turn to the old fashioned, to biography, to the concreteness of a life, to memoir. When my father had botched emergency surgery, Rob, my son took a six-week sabbatical from medical school in St. Louis in order to be with his grandparents. After watching an ordeal of medical error, he would finish medical school and then switch careers and universities. He became a computer engineer, getting graduate degrees in engineering and later, business. Programming was a continuation of his early inventiveness with computers, along with his fascination with computer/adventure games, games of logic and new narrative conventions of interaction and virtuality. (Dae, Rob’s gaming partner, would also learn from my father, taking his advice as I didn’t, when she got an MBA – becoming an early executive in internet businesses, including a clever start-up, iwon.com., which gave away money as user incentive. At the age of 38, she is a savvy e-commerce old-timer.) Meanwhile, my mother's breast cancer, in remission for twelve years, had spread, undetected and misdiagnosed as osteoporosis, to every bone of her body. Hers was a slow growing cancer that paradoxically prolonged her life and her suffering. There is pain that even morphine cannot erase. Catastrophe happened, regularly, almost predictably – there were many broken bones -- but Mom repeatedly outran death. We awaited her death at least four times, to say nothing of the six or eight final goodbyes to her mother, my grandmother. Amidst the medical crises, there were three constants, or continuities, in my mother's life -- her love of God, her family, and the stock market in the form of the cable channel, CNBC. I am not sure which she loved the most, truly. For twelve hours every weekday, from 6 am to 6 pm, she was tuned to CNBC -- a financial network of live reporting from New York and Wall Street, a subsidiary of NBC/General Electric, which came on the air in 1989. Although initially the ticker tape beneath the reporter or graphic made me dizzy, I learned how to watch CNBC -- to understand what the symbols running along the bottom of the screen represented; what all the worry or celebration, all the reported excitement, was about and eventually, I became an amateur at this game of knowledge, common sense, and intuition. (However, the phalanx of amateurs who invested in the market in the l990s, believing and that the market would always go up and
62 that lows were inevitably times to buy, were no match for the subprime crisis and the crashing financial system.) CNBC, like most news shows, has become increasingly slick and graphic -mimicking the desktop computer interface by dividing up the screen. The place of numbers -- the strings of stock quotations -- and relational graphics is central. Relational graphics (colorful graphs and charts) make economics visible, even aesthetic. Relational graphics fulfill the desire for the visible, as argument, as proof and were discovered in the late 1700s by William Playfair. 57 Charts enabled us to see the effects of Adam Smith's economic theory; no longer dependent on direct analogy to the physical world, relational graphics could place any two variables together. These are patterns of market behavior that “emerge unintentionally as the aggregate of individual decisions -- the seeming chaos of private persons and their self-interested desires . . . one can argue to causes on the basis of effects . . . one can now see the social body through statistical correlations that show patterns." (129) This resembles the logic of emergence, a bottom-up process akin to the working of an ant colony, tactics which online companies like Amazon employ. CNBC's twelve hours of live programming are divided into hourly and halfhourly programs, which parallel the Eastern Standard Time work day (including an hour called Power Lunch), segmented into sections, and all rapidly edited, live, in short energetic spots, with more than ten regular network hosts, some old, others middle-aged, a few younger women (more beautiful and younger every year), with different facial styles, and a slew of guest economists, mainly men, visiting stock market analysts, along with the CEOs and CFOs of major corporations, plugging their companies under the guise of earnings explanations, all making predictions, evaluating the future, guessing what the Fed would do next, and recommending “buy, sell, or hold.” Hosts decipher the deeper meanings of their words, buttressed by colorful graphics and charts, giving an aura of calculated rationality. Guests, with whom we become familiar over time, are on the set or remote, with predictable blue screen images locating them -- in San Francisco, there is a bridge, in Chicago a series of lakeshore skyscrapers or the loud, agitated floor of the Chicago Commodities Market. The CNBC high-tech studio and the floor of the New York Stock Exchange comprise an in-touch central hub of financial knowledge -- with no outside. This is an artificial world of signs and symbols. But the real broke in on 9/11/01 – when the cameras left the studio and focused on the World Trade Center towers, capturing the sudden fall, business anchors reporting on the attack on Wall Street and the Market. Hosts and guests are remarkably articulate, and the good ones are relaxed, personable, and talk in short, energetic sound bites. (Jim Cramer and Larry Kudlow became such popular guests that they were given their own shows, initially together, a pair of opposites. Then they were each given an hour show, more tailored to their personalities, and allowing Cramer to be outrageous and raucous and Kudlow to be conservative and patriotic). The sin is being dull and going on, particularly without being concrete. All of this conversation and reporting, of monologue and dialogue with each other, with us, with guest analysts, is upbeat and important to urgent -- intercut and cut-a
63 way with increasingly fast high tech graphs and commercials -- primarily for financial products and services. The constantly moving ticker tape, which now includes not only the symbol of the company/stock but also the full name, suggesting an increase in (rank) amateur viewers/traders, only stops for some commercials. Mother referred to the hosts by their first names; she had favorites, along with personal criticisms of mannerisms. She was always surprised, and a bit impatient, when I didn't know who these folks were on a first name familiarity. She loved the plucky, Armani suited Maria Bartiromo, live on the trading floor -- where my mother's fantasy would have loved to be. Now her expertise emerges in interviews with economic celebrities like Allan Greenspan or President Bush. And then there was Sue Herrera's hair, which completely covered one half of her face; or the way Sue had started touching guest analysts on their arms, flirting a bit too much for mother's taste. Although she loved Joe Kernen, she thought he could be too grouchy and irritable. Joe, David Favor, then the hot hunk of financial TV, and Mark Haines made up the early morning smart boy’s club, Squawk Box -- bantering, laughing, reporting big news, but also being a bit goofy, intercutting footage of penguins all sliding into the sea as metaphors for stock analysts. Just like one of the girls, or David Letterman years ago, Joe would make endless references to his bad hair days, his thick hair a rebuke to all the balding middle aged men. CNBC made the market personable, professional, accessible and urgent; regular hosts represented the numbers in conversational, human terms, directly speaking to the home viewer-investor, including us in on their conversations; they made us care about them and the market. While CNBC loves a good crisis, it also soothes us, teaches us, and makes watching TV important work, research. For the at home viewer, or worker, alone, CNBC portrays the pleasure of working at an office, with personable, happy or irascible colleagues; it gives us the social experience and camaraderie we are not having, whether on line or off. As I stated earlier, the market is an endless deferral and a series of binarisms -- up or down, buy or sell, gain or loss – which offset the ultimate binary -- life or/and death. For mother and me, the live coverage of the market kept death away, a deflection through live financial crises and catastrophes like the Gulf War and, later for me, the War in Iraq. This lowly cable channel not only has turned investing and the stock market into a form of popular culture, but it now is accorded respect by even Madison Avenue investment firms, who keep it on during “The Street” hours. In a sense, CNBC, like the internet, has realized the noble goal of early video visionaries -- the democratizing dream in which information and accessibility would be available to all, when two-way interaction would mean intervention and inclusion in political decisions. But the counter culture guerrillas of the 60s and 70s never imagined that money and commerce would be the content and the goal of their radical medium. While the hosts and visiting analysts on CNBC have become celebrities, as has happened to Erin Burnett in 2008/2009, with appearances on Meet the Press, there was
64 for years only one superstar of the economy -- when he spoke, CNBC stopped its speeded up flow, its regular programming; one camera remained focused on his live speech for what seemed like hours-- with reverence. We watched the market fluctuate according to his obfuscating words – in a graphic chart beside his talking head. He was the benevolent patriarch watching over the financial land. He was the embodiment of the rationality of neoclassical economic theory, plus a dose of governmental control and firm but kindly supervision. “Would the interest rates go (yes, another binary) up or down?” was the narrative suspense, initiating a frenzy of speculation and prediction. Yes, this was Alan Greenspan, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve System until his retirement in 2006. (The multi-million dollar book contract he signed, second only to Bill Clinton, attests to his superstardom, in late 2008, in freefall, just like the economy.) He is not charismatic, or stately, or handsome or particularly fascinating, or even tall. In fact, he is short, and old. His face is jowled and folded. His haircut, as it is, is a bit uneven; basically he is bald, his stance slightly awkward, and his general demeanor scrunched. He speaks in a slow, careful monotone, reading deliberately from his dense text, rarely looking up and over his spectacled eyes. As he gives his speech, he first leans to the left, then to the right, and then towards the podium in a bodily dance that is very funny and apparent when fast-forwarded. It is a rhythmic pattern that repeats in all of his big speeches, the Greenspan hokey-pokey. He reminds me of nothing so much as an intellectual, an older professor at an academic conference. He uses figures and theorems of economics, knowing that each and every word will be analyzed, or better, deconstructed. His thoughts, his words -replete with obfuscating statistics and economic models as demonstration of his brilliance -- are reassurance for us, much like medical information from doctors, or news anchors during catastrophe coverage. Greenspan embodies the flip side of what Kathleen Woodward has called statistical panic. 58 In contrast, Greenspan represents statistical tranquility, the other function that numbers can serve. Greenspan mollifies us with statistics, soothes us with information, calms us with his massive intelligence and benevolence. These static events, like a visit to the doctor when you have cancer, are, however, filled with tension -- even a fraction of a number, if he so spoke, could freak out the market, either up or down. Greenspan is the ‘soul of discretion,’ playing a game with the investment professionals, who try to predict his next move. As Simmel says, "Intellectual energy is the psychic energy which the money economy produces in contrast to those energies denoted as emotions or sentiments.” (429) Intellectual functions are “calculative functions,” mathematical functions. Greenspan and the Fed represent the “intellectual, psychic energy produced by the “money economy.” When Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson appealed to Congress and the public for bailout money, he spoke mathematically, thereby almost losing his case. For Simmel, the dilemma of modernity is that money, which is a means, becomes a goal, what he calls the "colonization of ends by means." Which leads to an endless series, or deferral, in which “the goal of the moment lies beyond the moment, a series
65 extended by money because money creates a common interest for otherwise unrelated series . . . the returns from one transaction enable a completely unrelated transaction." Money, which is a means, becomes an end, a purpose, a goal, and “countless things that are really ends are demoted in value and purpose." (431) This statement analyzes what happened in late 2007, when subprime mortgages were packaged and resold, “the returns from one transaction,” the mortgage, “enable a completely unrelated transaction,” the derivative products sold at inflated prices, with hefty commissions along the way. Along the way, money became the only goal, an end, not the means. Mother never confused means and ends. Money was to be respected, honored, saved and then spent when her family needed it, but it was never the goal, and it was never squandered. Although she reveled in her great stock picks, loved dividends, and hated capital gains taxes, she handled her buying and selling in terms of family -graduate school tuition for my children, her future care or medical bills. She worried about estate taxes. Because the day of death becomes the new purchase price of stocks when they are inherited, Mom wanted to die when the market was up, not down. And, conversely, as her stocks climbed, her portfolio’s worth exceeded the tax free inheritance deductible. Her success meant taxes for Nancy and me. Thus, she was between a rock and a hard place regarding taxes, which is why she loved Reagan’s market economics. When she lost interest in the market, I knew death was on its way -- five days later, December 19, 1997, after an arduous struggle, it forcibly came and silently left. Holding her in my arms, I inhaled my mother's last quiet and sweet breath. The world was absolutely still. I could feel my heart breaking as she left me -- truly a loss, truly the collapse of emotional investment. 59 I held her body in my arms, I closed my eyes, for I don’t know how long. I know why three days are spent in many cultures sitting with the body – it was wrenching when the funeral home took Mom’s body. The Dow closed that day at 7846.50, the Nasdaq at 1523.19, well below 2007’s averages over 13,000 on the New York Stock Exchange and 2400 on the Nasdaq. There was a steep market drop of 260 points that week, with more downturn expected. The lead article in Baron’s, “Fat and Unhappy,” wondered whether Toyota could survive its downturn in Japan. The government was pursuing its antitrust case against Microsoft. Google had not IPO’d. And the Dot Com bubble had not expanded and then exploded. Although she knew little about tech stocks, Mom bought stock in Sun Microsystems because Rob worked there. It would quintuple in value. The last company she expressed interest in buying was Apple, then around 14 dollars per share. Ten years later, it was $200. The War on Terror, in Iraq, was nowhere on anyone’s radar. Neither was the recession of 2008, when the Dow would revisit the numbers of 1997, erasing along the way, billions of electronic, sometimes imaginary dollars. Few saw this Black Swan (the unexpected event) coming, including Greenspan and his replacement, Ben Bernancke. But it might be the first economic/electronic catastrophe – with money as virtual, numbers that came from stringing money products like mortgages together. Once the serial movement stopped, the system crashed like a Ponzi scheme.
66 Mom was buried in Dry Wood, the small community outside of Cadott, Wisconsin, right beside her husband, my father, and close to her mother and father, Frank and Rose Sedlacek, in the cemetery of the church built by her grandfather. The day of her funeral was a snowy day. The Catholic priest was a friend of my grandmother Rose, still alive at 105 in The Golden Age Nursing Home. Afterward, we went to see her. She was a wisp of her former body, only air, light, and spirit. She opened her eyes and said “Patty! It’s you. And Nancy! I miss Margaret so much.” The sadness in her voice was even deeper than mine – it was that of a mother losing her oldest and favorite child, an unnatural loss at any age. And although my aunts had decided not to tell my grandmother about my mom’s death, she knew, just as she had known when Mom was ill. My mother’s greatest concern during her illness and before she died was that she had not been able to care for her mother. This love between mother and daughter is indeed bone deep and generations old. All those years, I thought I was caring for my mother. All the time she was preparing for my future -- when she could no longer worry about me, or come, unfailingly, to my emotional or financial rescue as she had done almost daily for 56 years. Now, every morning, the first thing I do is retrieve my Wall Street Journal from some bush, then turn on CNBC for “Squawk Box,” our favorite hour, followed by a computer check in with my online discount broker, to the Mary M. Jewson Trust -- which will go to my children unless I screw up. Everyone encouraged me to secure a professional financial adviser; I tried, even meeting with a top Wall Street broker. But I am just too much like my mother. I can still remember the day in 1987 when she bought many of her bank stocks, the day the market crashed, called Black Monday. I used to think it was her most triumphant moment. But the tranquil intensity of her death revealed a more profound courage. Postscript: After Death The grief I felt after my mother died in December 1997 was immense. As every writer says, it washed over me in waves, which would come suddenly, triggered by a sense, the smell of her perfume, a photograph, the sight of her clothes, or a place we had been together. I had to avoid driving anywhere near the Catholic hospice, where she died. Even a glimpse of the building would trigger volumes of teary grief. Joan Didion would call this the “vortex effect.” 60 As did she, “I plotted my routes.” My mind was too fractured to write, so I read. I read novels about older women, written by older women. I read novels of the dead, Lovely Bones and Being Dead, I read books by doctors who are also writers -- the bestseller, How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter, and the classic, Death: the Final Stage of Growth, by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a book my mother had used in her nursing and often quoted. I also read literary critics, Carolyn Heilbrun’s The Last Gift of Time, and Beautiful Work: A Meditation on Pain, by Sharon Cameron. 61
67 The Western books that have moved me the most were personal experiences of loss, written years ago by C.S. Lewis and in 2005 by Joan Didion, Magical Thinking, A Grief Observed. While they are profound portraits of grief, focusing on the details of everyday life after a death, they are so moving because they are love stories. C.S. Lewis puts it so perfectly. “For this is one of the miracles of love; it gives – to both, but perhaps especially to the woman – a power of seeing through its own enchantments and yet not being disenchanted.” (72) Herein also lies the difference between romance and love. Another of my favorite books was an experiential, intimate book – Richard John Neuhaus’ As I Lay Dying, a beautifully written contemplation about his own illness and close call with death -- after botched emergency surgery, a situation uncannily similar to that of my father. “The operation took several hours and was an unspeakable mess. The tumor had expanded to rupture the intestine: blood, fecal matter, and guts all over the place. My stomach was sliced open from the rib cage.” But the bleeding didn’t stop, and “Of course, they went in again.” “Death is the most everyday of everyday things. It is not simply that thousands of people die every day . . . it is the horizon against which we get up in the morning and go to bed at night.” (4) “We tell ourselves that we are prepared. But then our wisdom is shattered . . . not by a sudden awareness of the generality, but by the singularity of a death – by the death of someone we love . . . Or it is shattered by the imminent prospect of our own dying.” (21) Although there is an element of adventure in “moving into the unknown,” in his case, the “experience of dying” struck him as “so very commonplace, even trite.” (70) His state after surgery reminded me of my fall in the snow, unable to move or respond but not at all fearful: “I am surrounded by doctors and technicians talking in a worried tone . . . I heard everything that was said,” but he couldn’t respond, he was “locked into absolute immobility.” (84) What remained of my experience of the fall was my lack of fear, which took me by surprise. Neuhaus has a similar experience: “At the time of crisis and in the months of recovery following, I was never once afraid.” (154) There is something consoling about the absence of fear – for with death, as that old quote by FDR put it so well, we have to fear only fear itself. But in the snow, I knew that I would be OK. Neuhaus knew that he had almost died, and that “the final scene, death itself, was still to come.” (93) As in a dream, he was the dreamer, the viewer, and the doer. He wonders: “This puzzled me; whether dying, the thing itself, is something one can do. Is it an event, is it a deed, or is it something that just happens?” (93) He then posits the difference between dying and death. “I could not conceive what it is to die. To be dying – I knew about that . . . But to die, the thing itself, that I was trying to understand.” (96) 62 Unlike sleep, death “is for keeps. When you are dying you have to do something with yourself, and since there is very little you do about yourself, the only thing to do is to give yourself away,” to surrender. (102)
68 Like Joan Didion, he notices small details which resonate with truth – the humiliation and embarrassment “of being exposed for what I am, the thing itself,” stripped of all “appearances and all pretense.” And the way “friends who cannot look at us look away and are embarrassed for us.” (108) He used to be bored to distraction “by the sick and old chattering endlessly about their operations and medications. . . I discovered that, when you are really sick, a more entrancing subject can hardly be imagined. The world turns around aches and pills,” as it did with my mother’s years devoted to managing great pain. Niehaus describes a mystical experience of seeing messengers of light, what he calls “presences,” in his room, giving him the message that “Everything is ready now.” This experience has proved to be indelible for him. I have had similarly intense, visionary moments. During Gurumayi’s visit to Milwaukee in the spring of 1992, she invited me to her room backstage at the Pabst Theatre, after a meditation intensive. I pranamed and she beckoned me to come up to her chair. She reached over and took a black beaded necklace from a tray beside her table. Then she lightly pulled my head onto her lap, and clasped the necklace around my neck. I went to another reality -- of pure energy, light, movement, boundless, ethereal, thrilling beyond words and beyond even my memory of it. It took several minutes for me to return to earth’s stratosphere. Like Neuhaus, “I resolved at that moment that I would never, never let anything dissuade me from the reality of what happened.” And when my mother died, I looked up and over her body, quiet after her last breath, and saw an almost blinding white light in the corner of the room – illuminating the 4 am darkness. Shortly after, an aid walked in, remarking about the high intensity illumination in the room. I did not tell her that Mom had died. I didn’t want anyone to take her away from me. I wanted to sit with her, to hold her. And then to bathe and anoint her. Her skin was impossibly youthful, unwrinkled, flawless – as if aging had reversed. I felt her closeness to God, I thought of her favorite saint, St. Anthony, I said her blessed name, Mary, although only the doctors and nurses had called her “Mary.” Neuhaus suggests that “It may be in visions we touch upon realities of which what we call reality may be only the shadowland.” Baba and Gurumayi would surely agree with Neuhaus and his quote of Dostoyevsky. “There are moments . . . when you feel the presence of the eternal harmony,” which fills one with rapture. “During these five seconds I live a whole human existence, and for that I would give my whole life and not think that I was paying too dearly.” (120-121) Neuhaus has no pretense that he has “explained anything about death and dying. Death eludes explanation, death is the death of explanation.” (125) But in his elegant way, he maps the paradoxes of death. “We speak of death as an ending and as a transition to something else. It is the terror of destruction, and it is liberation. Death attacks from without and matures from within. It is both violent alien and a friend’s offer of peace beyond understanding. Death happens to us without our permission and invites our collaboration. It is the most natural of things and the destruction of everything that is natural and right.” Little wonder that “the number of entries on death is second only to
69 the number of entries on love.” (126) Earlier he suggested the troubling “entanglement of love and death. Love at its most profound is the gift of the self.” (102) He concludes that the “I” lasts beyond death in relationships. “’I’ continue to be a reality in the consciousness of the other.” (142) My mother is a reality in the “I” that is me. Rarely a day goes by when I don’t hear her in my own words. And there is another lonely aftereffect. No one will ever love me the way my mother did; no one will ever unfailingly greet my entrance into a room with such an expression of delight and joy; no one will ever see me simultaneously as a girl and as an old woman. My personal archive died with my mother. As Didion writes, “When we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.” (198) Neuhaus’ conclusion about his own death “turned on the personal: What had happened with Christ would happen, was happening with me. His death and his life anticipated my death and my life.” “What I have learned is that in living and in dying, everything is ready now,” is the book’s last elegiac sentence.
70 CHAPTER 5:
Melodrama in Morocco: From Death to Dating
In March 2001, I was in Morocco -- in Marrakesh, an exotic, dramatic setting -with Jonathan, whom I had known for only six, albeit intense, weeks. Despite the curious glances of the other diners, I was sobbing, pathetically. He looked stunned, bewildered. We were having lunch beside the pool of the magnificent Hotel Mamunia, where we were staying. So why was I crying? In such a perfect setting? The answer is embarrassing, but here it is, in context. We had toured this wondrous country for twelve days, exploring the ancient Medinas of Fez, Rabat, Meknes, and Marrakesh -- and driving through the countryside of tranquil farmland. The Medinas are the old central cities, dense warrens of artisans and their beautiful wares, trade, and the energy of crowded communal life. Fez, the oldest city, dating back to 808, is a medieval Islamic city, extraordinarily beautiful. Dotted with gigantic palms and green domes, Fez is surrounded by mountains and streams running down to the fairytale city. The white houses with flat roofs have fine minarets made out of mosaic tiles. But even with a map, we became instantly lost in the intricate maze of the old city within five minutes, so we hired a guide, who wore an outer robe with a hood. It was hard not to notice that women were largely missing in public places – the coffee houses and outdoor cafes were filled with men talking, hanging out, importantly so. When women did appear, they wore long, hooded gowns of many designs, jalabis, over their clothes. In the villages and countryside, women also wore veils over their faces. Houses were designed to surround interior courtyards, where women worked, kept out of sight. I had never been in an Islamic culture. After a few days, I began to feel uncomfortable in public spaces. And I was wearing my ashram wardrobe of long skirts and long sleeve/high neck tops. (After all, new cultures suggest new styles.) I understood the protective anonymity of the jalabi (djellaba, jalaba), a garb also worn by many men. By not wearing it, I also felt as if I were flaunting the country’s customs – Muslim traditions – and I did not want to be disrespectful to another culture or spiritual system. I had been inspired by the philosophy of the Sufi poets and mystics, Rumi 63 and Hafez. 64 Gurumayi, my spiritual teacher, like Baba Muktananda, her teacher, often quoted the Islamic poet saints, Kabir and Rabbia 65; or told the comic tales of Nasrudin. I had read several books of poetry, biographies, and scholarly analyses of Rumi’s poetry and life. One day I would make a pilgrimage to Rumi’s shrine, in Konya, Turkey and
71 attend a ceremony of the whirling dervishes, the Sufi dance of entrancement and adoration of God. I recalled these books and the Sufi version of love as I traveled through Morocco. My amateur, beginner’s knowledge of Islam made the strange less so. My knowledge was comforting to me, linking me just a little bit to the culture. I always responded to the call to prayer and took time to bow to Mecca. I found the haunting public prayers a beautiful reminder of our divinity, of a passionate faith in God, and of a historical lineage that had passed on these beliefs and practices through the generations. 66 The past became the present. Time slipped into reverse. It could have been 1940 in the country, or even centuries ago in the Medinas of Fez, or Marrakesh. Most of the products were hand crafted; the wood and stone carving and inlays were intricate, carried over on a grand scale to the fretted architecture of minarets. In the countryside, farmers tilled the fields with a wooden plow and donkey. Stone fences decorated the landscape. We were in a country of natural and architectural beauty. It was the setting for a fairy tale, yet one that was real and very tangible. But with each new five star hotel suite, in Fez or Rabat, one more luxurious than the previous, I became more anxious. At each checkpoint, I had insisted on showing my passport to the hotel clerk, rather than letting Jonathan handle it, which was logical because he had taken care of the reservations. He began to become irritated with what was becoming obvious – I didn’t want him to see my passport. Why? His suspicion, so far in check, began to verge on anger. To explain his frustration, he told me a poignant and troubling story of discovering a dreadful family scandal in the microfilm archives of the local newspaper when he was eighteen. Although he had repeatedly asked about how his grandfather had died, his mother had never told him the gruesome story: that (when she was 17) her beloved father had shot and killed his business partner (who had been cheating him) and then himself. However, she had shared this tale of murder and suicide with his older brother, Dave. As a result, when information was withheld from Jonathan, he felt excluded, abandoned, unworthy of confidentiality. This pain triggered anger, which he was trying to contain, barely. What horrible fact was I trying to hide from him? Who was I? Was my passport a forgery? The jig was up. I confessed. “I’m 60,” I sobbed. “What?” He looked bewildered. I repeated, “I’m 60.” “Is that it? Why is that a problem? What’s wrong with that?” He gently laughed, and his incredulity was genuine, he didn’t care in the least that I was sixty, but I did. – I didn’t like “being sixty,” not at all. To compound my embarrassment, I had fudged the dates of my high school and college graduations during our many long conversations, taking me down to a presumed and more acceptable 58, closer to his 56 years.
72 My recent birthday had not been a happy one for me. In fact, I was upset that I was sixty. It felt as if the best part of my life had already happened and the rest was downhill or on hold, a future to be lived in a dull, drab neutral. Who cared about 60 year old women? No one, I decided, not even other 60-year-old women. Now 70, that would be another story – the story of afterward . . . after children, career ambition, physical attractiveness, and men (although I had already given them up there was still potential if not reality). 70 would be a landmark of letting go, followed by the glorious and eccentric 80s and the wizening of the 90s, into the frail ethereality of the 100s. 60, on the other hand, was just the dull beginning of the end. Another trigger was something Jonathan said at our initial meeting at Columbia Hospital, just weeks earlier. After reading me a letter detailing his goals for the remainder of his life – no small surprise when he pulled out this intimate, typed document, along with an Excel spreadsheet of all his business commitments for the year! -- he invited me to visit him in Florida, soon. He didn’t want to waste any time. It was urgent that he get on with his life because in four years he would be sixty! He repeated SIXTY!! as if it were a death knell, the resolute end. And I had just turned his dreaded sixty! Nine days earlier. But I didn’t tell him this. In fact, I dodged every age-related question, smudging and fudging and hemming and hawing even my graduation year from high school. I didn’t lie, exactly, but I also didn’t fess up. My intense, morbid reaction to being sixty surprised me. I had written about the double standard of age wherein older men, in life and at the movies, retain their power and sexuality while older women lose theirs. Women could be fifty, but they had to look thirty. I hadn’t considered sixty. And then there was the familiar scenario in life and in film of the older man and the younger woman as the central couple or story, rarely the inverse. At the movies, in the boardroom, and in the halls of Congress, older men were still leading men whereas older women simply vanished. Where were they? 67 Through my spiritual practices, I had disengaged the equation of self with body, or so I thought. Women are so much more than their bodies! Just sacks of skin which become slack with age. I am not my skin! And why are lines on women’s faces and marks on their bodies any less attractive than those on men’s skin? Why does Redford get to have scars on his face? And still be attractive? Influential? Why does Nicholson get to be fat, bald, and out of shape? And still be desirable? And powerful? In Morocco, letting Jonathan see my skin took courage – the scars on my abdomen from surgery, the cellulite blobs before and aft, the sundry pouches and lumps. (Years later, he let me know that he had noticed every flaw, but accepted them as “part of the package.”) Although I was surprised by the negative emotions raised by the number, 60, I do think there is a landmark quality to 60 – with it comes the realization that life is about two-thirds or more over. Now we have old age and death ahead, and most of us are ill prepared for this awareness. My distress was also magnified or triggered by being dumped on my 60th birthday by mustached Bob, the first man I had dated in many years.
73 A brief history . . . After my divorce in 1975, I loved the freedom of being single, although being a divorced parent to two children had its trials and terrors. I had a series of intense, short-term encounters, in the end, sabotaging every one. I could not sustain desire, after the initial romance. It took too much energy – and mine was used up by my life. Solution? Have quick, uncommitted relationships and at the first sign of dullness, flagging interest, conflict, or criticism, particularly criticism, break them off. Or better yet, slyly fix up your dates with your friends. The perfection of this defense was to eliminate intimate relationships altogether via a pre-emptive strike, while maintaining friendships. One part of my ego was protected, invincible. The other part was too dependent on my children for affection. Later I would learn about my arrested emotions, their destructive nature. After my children left for college in 1988, I learned to enjoy being and living alone. I began a period of life-changing discovery of what I call my amateur knowledges – of the twelve steps of AA and the principles of Eastern meditation – and achievement, publishing four scholarly books between 1990 and 1996 and becoming a Distinguished Professor. For seven years as I cared for my ailing parents, who moved a block from me in 1990, I dedicated myself to teaching, writing, AA meetings, and to my meditation practice. Being alone and enjoying the small pleasures, a book in bed, coffee in the quiet early morning, became precious to me. They still are. So, there I am, in 1999, twenty five years single, fourteen of them dateless, teaching, writing, and living alone, a story of happily ever after very different from the coupled ending of so many Hollywood movies I had so archly analyzed. My children had become delightful adults with graduate degrees, and professional careers. Dae had just been married in New York, in a moving Jewish wedding, and was enjoying her career in internet businesses. Rob was working as a computer engineer in Silicon Valley and studying for his third graduate degree at Berkeley. I had just negotiated a onesemester teaching load, along with a year’s sabbatical and a big raise. Finally my salary was commensurate with my title. I began to look for a second home on the coast of California, north of San Francisco where Rob lived. I was also looking for a condo in Manhattan. My future would be bi-coastal, an exciting conclusion to an entire life lived in the Midwest, in Wisconsin. For the first time in my life, I could financially relax. My parents had left me a healthy stock portfolio. I could be writing and teaching at the University for the next 25 years – a bit of a daunting prospect yet nevertheless the easy, uneventful, and unemotional ending I foresaw for my life. The play had been cast and the major players had already made their appearances. There would be no big surprises, just some changes in the supporting roles. My life wasn’t perfect, but it was fine to terrific. And I felt a bit superior to women who still “needed” or defined their happiness by men. (To be honest, it was more than “a bit.”) In fact, I had become Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote. While her friends had dreadful marital feuds, often resulting in gruesome murders she would singlehandedly solve, she was independent, above the emotional, destructive fray of marriage
74 and the family. The TV series' star was, of course, an older woman, Angela Lansbury playing Jessica Fletcher, mystery writer/sleuth. 68 But then in 1999 Italian Bob invited me to a movie. After fourteen dateless years, I accepted, with trepidation. It was a nervous evening, and I was home by 9 p.m. Whew! But I was attracted to him. He was a devoted meditator, a leader of our meditation center, where I had met him, ten years earlier. And a cook, with a pizza restaurant outside Milwaukee. He would help me on my spiritual path! And cook! What more could anyone need? I repressed his bushy mustache and scent of musk or sandalwood, along with rare and anti- or better, non-, climatic sex. In his mid fifties, short, attractive, in good shape, and never married, Bob had a reputation as a ladies man, but after each fling ended, he would return to Deanna, who had been rudely dumped and then reclaimed nine times by musked Bob. “Not me,” said the Great I (aka Me), believing I was a cut above the previous dumpees, including Deanna. After all, Bob had not finished high school and had only a modest income from his Italian restaurant. He had a fourteen year old daughter he had never supported and just recently met, and an irascible eighty-two year old Italian mother who was four feet eight inches tall, with a fog horn voice that blasted trucker talk. “Lucky him,” thought the Great I. “I will help him. I live in a glorious condominium, am economically independent and spiritual to boot, a leader in our Center. I am a catch for him, a step up, albeit an older one.” My logic, along with my outsized ego, was deeply flawed, in many ways. A little more than a year of anxiety and dissatisfaction later, after he returned from two weeks at my house in Sea Ranch, California, which I had purchased in December, 1999, Bob called me. It was January 15th, 2001, my 60th birthday. Rather than “Happy Birthday” and dinner plans, he told me about the Sufi massage therapist he had met in Sea Ranch, through our friends there, Pam and Jerry. “I love her, Pat, she is The One.” 69 I was furious. “The One?” Something clicked, like a lamp in a dark room. Finally! In a burst of physical strength, I hauled all of his possessions out of my condominium, to the garage. I needed to erase any sign of him from my life. It was sub zero and snowy in Milwaukee in mid January. Three hours later, I called Bob back, and quietly informed him that anything he didn’t pick up today, the Salvation Army would, tomorrow. He asked for an extra day. I refused. And that was the end of Bob. No discussion. No shouting. No hysteria. But there was emotional residue. How could I have been so egotistical to believe that I was better than other women? And how could I have let myself be used like this? How did I so misunderstand what being “spiritual” means? It is an inner state, not outward ritual, it is action, not talk and posturing. Being spiritual is being real, being honest, being kind, compassionate and selfless. I wanted to get over this quickly so I did something I had never done – I relinquished my pride. I brazenly told everyone I spoke to that Bob had dumped me for a Sufi massage therapist. If I didn’t run into someone, I
75 called with the dump news. I even called Swami Indirananda in the Ashram, who thought this was good news! I didn’t die of embarrassment or humiliation or not being good enough for the long haul. Quite the contrary, I began to feel relief and a bit of humor. In the overall scheme of my life, this was not even a flyspeck. Not surprisingly, no one was unhappy with my news, particularly Rob and Dae. Increased meditation and chanting helped immeasurably. Charlotte Jocko Beck’s book, Nothing Special, took care of the painful aftereffects. I read sections of it every morning, after meditation. This little book set the emotional stage for what was to come next. For rather than burying or running away from pain, I learned to acknowledge and lean into it – as I had done with Rob’s diagnosis and my parents’ deaths. But this time I did it with something ordinary and worldly. The invincible part of my ego that had protected me from criticism and rejection would be exposed and very vulnerable. I was out there in the world, my defenses down in an almost breathless honesty. Paradoxically, I would soon learn, this made me infinitely stronger. Charlotte Joko Beck teaches at the San Diego Zen Center – but I have met her only in her two books. Her history is exceptional and typical. As the author of the preface tells us, she was born in New Jersey, went to college, married and had children. After her divorce, she “supported herself and her four children as a teacher, secretary, and later as an administrative assistant in a large university department.” No status there, believe me, but lots of work and big egos. The fault line between faculty and staff in universities can be a chasm of inequity. That was when Beck began to study Zen with a teacher in Los Angeles, commuting for years. She was designated his Dharma Heir, and in 1983 began to teach Zen in San Diego. “She no longer shaves her head, and seldom uses robes or her titles.” (vi) She sees herself “as a guide rather than a guru, refusing to be put on a pedestal of any kind . . . she shares her own life difficulties.” (vii) Which is why this is the first Zen book I have truly grasped. The philosophy has been too ephemeral, too vague, too nothingness, for me In “Love,” Beck takes a concept from a Zen scholar, Menzan Zenji (1683-1796) – emotion-thought, which she describes as “self-centered thoughts that we fuss with all the time.” (71) I was familiar with “fussing” with “self-centered thoughts,” through my addiction and recovery, along with my research and writing on anxiety. ”Their absence is the enlightened state,” what Zen calls satori. I had glimpses of this serene tranquility and clarity. But it never lasted. Beck goes on to define what she calls “false love,” which resembles romantic love. False love “breeds in the emotion-thought of expectations, hopes, and conditioning . . . we expect that our relationship should make us feel good.” But she says that this “dream collapses under pressure . . . such ‘love’ turns into hostility and argument.” I interpret “pressure” as everyday, ordinary life, as well as crises. False love, based on expectations and hopes, perfectly described my Bob period. It was never real, never honest or true. Not surprisingly it had turned into hostility and argument. Beck immediately gives the solution to this trajectory: When we just sit with our disappointment, “experiencing our pain . . . the melting of the false emotion can begin, and true compassion can emerge.” (72/73) Good relationships are about
76 compassion, which is self-less instead of selfish. (It took a few years for me to experience compassion and thus to truly know it. I would discover that one of its components is empathy -- for a moment, being in the other’s pain.) With the exception of Rob’s heart and my parent’s deaths, to experience pain, to lean into pain, to acknowledge pain was all new to me. My solution to pain of any sort, whether emotional or physical, was to escape, or pretend it didn’t exist --denial -- or change my circumstances, never acknowledge it, particularly out loud. To acknowledge being hurt (or angry) was shameful to me. And I had many tactics for pain avoidance or denial: valium, alcohol, shopping, movies, travel, comedy, and in an extreme, recent example, a new house in California. Beck’s solution was revolutionary to me. She urges us to stay with the suffering, “go into the suffering and let it be.” I believed that my ability to change unpleasant things, to make things better, for myself and others, was my great talent and my avenue to freedom. And sometimes this was true. But often I had only made things different, not better; and more of the same is not better. Beck takes a very different tack regarding pain and freedom. “Freedom is closely connected with our relationship to pain and suffering . . . Because of the fear of pain we all build up an ego structure to shield us, and so we suffer. Freedom is the willingness to risk being vulnerable to life; it is the experience of whatever arises in each moment, painful or pleasant.” (189) Her words are concise, simple, simply brilliant. “Freedom is . . . to risk being vulnerable.” To “risk being vulnerable” was a scary endeavor for me. (Feminism was, and had formed, a shield of invulnerability for, and around, me.) Each morning I sat quietly for two hours, meditating, then reading and contemplating Beck’s words. I began to understand the classic error I had made with Bob – I expected him to make me happy and fulfilled. I even expected him to help with my meditation – which is a solitary pursuit! As Beck and countless therapists have pointed out, this is the original false premise of romance, at the base of many relationships. We erroneously expect our relationship “to be the one place that gives us peace.” But they don’t. Often they do the opposite, they make us miserable. So, why have one at all? Why not go back to my alone state, the pre-Bob epoch? Beck immediately answers: “We begin to see that they are our best way to grow. In them we can see what our mind, our body, our senses, and our thoughts really are . . . Why are relationships such excellent practice? Why do they help us to go into what we might call the slow death of the ego?” (88) Because aside from meditation, “there is no way that is superior to relationships in helping us see where we’re stuck and what we’re holding on to . . . So a relationship is a great gift, not because it makes us happy – it often doesn’t – but because any intimate relationship, if we view it as practice, is the clearest mirror we can find.” (89) This is what Marge Rock, my recovery therapist, had tried to tell me – a relationship was a mirror, an opportunity for self-awareness, an exercise for my ego to shrink; it was not simply about pleasure and security, it was about risk and vulnerability.
77 It was not happily ever after at the movies, but a chance for self-insight and reflection. Bob was a mirror – all the fear and withholding I saw in him were actually in me; my bottled-up anger was there, just below the surface. This was not at all what I imagined myself to be. And this fear, anger and righteousness, this crust of invincibility, had to surface in order to be removed. “When a relationship isn’t working, it means that the partners are preoccupied with ‘I’. . . what I want.”(96) Yes, this was true of Bob, always on the lookout for someone else. But it was also true of me. 70 I kept a mental list of what he was not doing for me, a list that grew longer each week. “Our fear of our own annihilation leads to useless behaviors, including the effort to protect our self-image, our ego. Out of that need to protect comes anger. Out of anger comes conflict. And conflict destroys our relationships with others.” (97) 71 But in this instance, destroying the relationship was a very good thing. And that is a key point – if one is on a spiritual path, wrong decisions will be righted, just as selfdelusions will clear up. Bob was a delusion, a bad choice. Just as I was for him. In spite of my clinging to the relationship, the universe intervened in the form of a Sufi massage therapist, to whom I will forever be grateful. And I was not annihilated, only a little humiliated, or maybe humbled. Once again, I was saved from my superficial choices in relationships – based on outer appearances rather than inner achievements. Then the familiar emotional scenario: Fear leading to ego protection and then on to anger and conflict and running away is a trajectory I will try to remember. I have taken this route so many times it has become ingrained, almost instinctual. The solution is counterintuitive – when I fear self-annihilation (and the instinctual adrenaline of fight or flight), don’t leave, don’t argue, be still, be quiet, be strong. For the first time in my everyday life, 72 I had consciously leaned into the pain rather than denying it or running away from it. I would be OK, no matter what happened. A mere ten days later, my speed dating experience erased any memory/thought of Bob. Seriously. Gone, in TEN DAYS! What a joy to regain sanity! There were other gems in Beck’s book that I stored in the back of my mind. I was unable to handle criticism, even contrary suggestions, from colleagues and dates. “We feel that the only way to handle an attack is to fight back; and the way we fight is with our minds. We arm ourselves with our anger and our opinions, our self-righteousness.” (Everyday Zen, 107) 73 I lived in “I”, the Great I, on guard for disagreement and feminist injustice. As an intellectual and a smart woman with a great deal of concealed fear, I fought with my mind, armed with opinions and self-righteousness. My scholarly traits bled into my personal life. I cringe at the memories of my public academic arrogance. And I cringe today at what’s left of my intellectual ego, and my lack of its awareness, in this book. Like other Buddhist scholars, Beck cautions us against hope, suggesting that we choose life as it is, life without drama. Why? Aren’t aspirations and hope important to essential, along with excitement? She would say no to both. They exist only in the
78 future, and only in the mind. But even more importantly, they inflate the ego. “No matter what our particular drama is, we are always at the center of it – which is where we want to be. Through practice, we gradually shift away from that self pre-occupation . . . Thus, to move from a life of drama to a life of no drama, although it sounds extremely dull, is what Zen practice is about.” (Nothing Special, 249) For me, relationships were always high drama, which is why I stopped having them. They were painful, they hurt, and they were all about Me. But if I could be vulnerable and lean into the pain rather than defend my fearful ego against it, there was another way. One brief Beckism completely reversed my thinking. I put it in my pocket, for quick retrieval. “Sharp rocks are truly jewels.” (Nothing Special, 116) The metaphor would be echoed by Dr. Ashok Bedi, Jonathan’s Indian psychoanalyst, as the sand grit that makes the pearl in the oyster. More of this, later. Bob had served as great practice. The door to a relationship, which I had closed many years before, had been opened. Nine days later I met Jonathan. At my sister Nancy’s frustrated insistence, fed up with my moaning about being dumped, or deep sixtied, I called the recorded voice mails of men between 55 and 70 in the audio personals of the Milwaukee Journal. (This was 2001, the pre-dawn of Match.com and other online dating sites.) If the brief bios sounded interesting, I left my name and telephone number: “Hi, my name is Pat; I teach at the University, am tall and thin with streaked blonde hair. Oh, I love my books.” Seriously. This is exactly what I said. Could I have been more idiotic? But they all called back the same day. How desperate is that! From January 22 to 24, I speed dated, meeting six or seven potentials for afternoon coffee at the local Schwartz bookstores – an hour max. This experimental egobooster would only be temporary until my desirability could be re-established or not. Then right back to the single life I had embraced and advocated to other women for so many years pre Bob blip. After all, who needed the pain and agony of dating? After the initial meeting, they all invited me on real dates. That was all the affirmation I needed. Without a second thought, I turned them down. I felt pretty terrific. I wasn’t the drudge I imagined myself to be. Now I could get on with my book on death and spirituality! The nightmare of Bob – failing to have a healthy relationship and then being dumped for a younger woman -- was over! except as comedy. I didn’t plan on falling in love, at sixty. But then I didn’t count on meeting Jonathan in the coffee shop of Columbia Hospital – which was adjacent to the University. I had stopped for coffee on my way to my last meeting, at 3:30, January 24, 2001. I was so over the desire to date that I didn’t even “do” my hair or put on mascara that morning. But the energy in our initial encounter, and the conversation we had while he was waiting for the results of his thyroid exam (talk about high romance), were inspiring, thrilling. He was 56, intelligent, attractive, funny, articulate, unconventional, even quirky, casually stylish in a Ralph Lauren way, and a very successful businessman, an
79 entrepreneur who had become a professor at the university. After selling his trade publication company, a family company founded by his father, in 1994, he went to the renowned international business school, IMD in Switzerland as an executive in residence. He stayed for four years, at 55 receiving his PhD in family business. Now he was a Professor, teaching entrepreneurship in the Business School at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and writing his book on selling family companies. I am embarrassed to write that I was immediately attracted to him. Few things have surprised me more than this – I didn’t believe in love at first sight, just a romantic convention of the movies that I had analyzed in my 1996 book on women and film, A Fine Romance. (My preferred title, refused by the publisher, was the clever What Cinderella and Snow White Forgot to Tell Thelma and Louise; it reveals my rather arch take on romance, couples and marriage.) And if not unbelievable, then the encounter was ludicrous, maybe even lunacy. After all, I had just turned sixty! Sixty was hardly the age of loopy romance and exotic adventure. Particularly while reading Charlotte Beck’s Everyday Zen. When I told my daughter, Dae, in Manhattan, and my sister, Nancy, that “he could be the one,” they thought I was in aftershock from the mysterious grand mal seizure I had in New York a month earlier, which had landed me in the emergency room of Presbyterian Hospital for Christmas Eve, unconscious again for several hours. When I said I had agreed to visit him in Florida, where he had a condominium (I would stay in a nearby hotel), they both freaked! Was I nuts? Who was this guy? He could be a serial slayer of feminist professors. And he was a businessman, not a filmmaker or artist, my preferred choices. This behavior was nothing like me. What was I thinking? Their alarm was sensible and logical. And not just for medical reasons. Or for using romance clichés like “he could be the one.” But three weeks after this first encounter, I spent four days in New York, staying with Dae, and her husband, Larry, who waited up for me when I came back from my dates with Jonathan. I confess to enjoying the luxurious way he traveled; I was honored by the way he was courting me -- with limousines and hotel suites and constant attention. And his desire for me, which he expressed enthusiastically, increased my interest in him. My deep seated fear of being abandoned (yes, I know, a much over-used cliché but still true) was soothed by his endearments and declarations of love. 74 This man felt so familiar to me – our histories were so similar it was a bit uncanny. We went to the same college, worked at the same television station, WKOW in Madison, knew many of the same people, and now lived on the same street, Lake Drive, fourteen blocks apart, in Milwaukee. Our children had attended the same school, University School, and were of comparable ages. Our fathers had the same birthday and sense of humor. It was as if we were old friends. He was charming, a bit eccentric, offbeat and sophisticated, with a gregarious, playful personality. He was a mesmerizing story-teller and had a very sexy smile. Nothing daunted him; nothing was impossible; he took action effortlessly and perfectly. I loved his style, his energy. I was impressed by his self-confidence, and his competence -- the way he saw opportunity and took hold of
80 life. I mentioned that I wanted to travel in Morocco. Less than two months later, there I was, in Morocco, in what was rapidly becoming a committed relationship. After this being sixty incident in Morocco, repeated with therapeutic glee countless times by Jonathan at gatherings and parties (and chance encounters with strangers, whether store clerks or waiters—“How old do you think she is?” -- he can be relentless in pursuit of the good cause), I gritted my teeth, held his hand, found my own extraordinary Jungian analyst in San Francisco, Dr. John Beebe – Jonathan had his Jungian analyst, Dr. Ashok Bedi -- and began to take another look at my self. I went from rejection through acceptance and, I like to imagine, on to at least a small celebration of my 60 years. It took some time before I trusted his acceptance of my age. My interior visual critic was ruthless. Honesty became a premium, and a challenge, given my opening hedge about my age. Jonathan was gregarious with all our guides and merchants, particularly the Moroccan rug hawkers, establishing short relationships with strangers who happily responded to his open, and amusing engagements. Jonathan was a character, a delightful, considerate, generous character. The creativity of his competence and his tenacity will always amaze me. I had been used to doing everything myself – what a luxury it was to rely on another. Trust had been elusive for me. This feeling, which grew slowly in time, was one of comfort and relief, of relaxing after an exhausting journey. But I suspect the quality that initially attracted me as much as any other was Jonathan’s interest in my intellectual work – we talked about how my writing on theories of anxiety related to his work on selling family companies. My intellect didn’t threaten him, rather, it fascinated him. In turn, I was equally entranced by his stories (and practices) of business – and understood how he had come to be successful and respected, without any of the pretensions that come with achievement and status. At sixty, on January 24, 2001, at 2:30 p.m., my life took an abrupt turn, and within six months, I began to live a coupled life that I had fled in 1974 and to entertain thoughts of an institution, marriage, that I had disparaged for so long So . . .this is the “dating” of the book, but it only came after a decade or more focus on death, a quest that was personal and intellectual.
81 In retrospect, I think I was crying so uncontrollably in Morocco because I was afraid – I didn’t know how to let my guard down, I didn’t know how to maintain my independence and freedom with another, I didn’t know how to risk being vulnerable. To be frank, I didn’t know how to be completely honest and I knew little about my emotions. Feminism made me stronger but it had also made me arrogant and wary, if not downright suspicious, of men. Feminism gave me a focus and a career. It gave me a voice and a place in the academic world. It convinced me that my thoughts and my life and the lives of women mattered. It made me truly independent. Love made me stronger in a different way. It made me vulnerable, it humbled me. The rest of this book is about the distance from that afternoon of shame and denial in Morocco, to being 60.
82 CHAPTER 6:
The Sea Ranch and The Buddha
In the fall of 2001, I took a year’s sabbatical from the University and lived full time in my house at Sea Ranch, California. I was, yikes, still 60. I had no job, no family, no friends, no history in the area to anchor me. For the first time in my life, I was without a built-in identity (as daughter, wife, or mother) or professional purpose. And there was no place to escape, no multiplex or mall. I had set the perfect scene for a life of simplicity and solitude. Now I had to live it. Jonathan would fly out every weekend, from Madison, Wisconsin, where he was a Professor in the Business School, roaring up the Pacific Coast Highway 1 in his Porsche, making record time. His ardor captivated me: he missed only one weekend, when all the planes in the U.S were grounded – after 9/11/2001. (But I was not alone that historical day. Dae and Larry were visiting me from New York. The universe can be so mysterious in its affection.) Three hours north of San Francisco, The Sea Ranch nestles along nine spectacular, windy miles of Northern California coastline, with its rugged bluffs, high surf, and cold seas. It is a dramatic locale, right out of the movies. The “planned” community was designed in the 1960s by architects who wanted to “live lightly on the land,” preserving an aesthetic balance between the built and the natural environments. Simple modern houses of redwood or cedar, in subdued brown hues, are interspersed with nature preserves and walking trails. Soaring windows bring the outside in. The Design Committee approves every tree, window, or nail. Property lines are not demarked, they merge and flow into each other. Landscape style is natural and indigenous. It cannot mark ownership. Nature has not only provided a gorgeous backdrop, like living on a Hollywood movie set, but it also serves as a barrier to development, as does the isolation and lack of distraction. Sea Ranch is accessible only after an hour’s drive along the ocean on the sharply curving Pacific Coast Highway, or the narrow, steeply pitched Skaggs Spring Road through the mountains. During the summer, a dense mist hovers over Sea Ranch like a protective covering for this enclave of 1500 houses and 500 permanent residents, many who left successful careers in their late 40s or early 50s to live here. Sometimes I think Sea Ranch is where over-achievers go to decompress before they die. Or where unrequited leaders can enact their unfulfilled professional desires as volunteers. The nearby town of Gualala, population 685, also straddles Highway One. Along this short stretch, there are two supermarkets, two video stores, two lawyers, two gas
83 stations, two hardware stores, one small gym, one local newspaper, the Independent Coast Observer, one drug store, several hotels, restaurants, art galleries and gift shops. Social interactions occur in the produce aisles at the Surf supermarket, at the P.O. Boxes, at Trinks Bakery or the funky Café LaLa, and at events in the Gualala Art Center, built from redwoods by locals and full timers. Volunteers also refurbished the movie theater, thirty minutes north in Point Arena. Here, a bit bedraggled, the hippy 1960s are alive and well in clothing, hairstyle, and the drug culture, just barely underground and aging. On the first day of my new life in a very small town, I did two things: I joined the gym, a small town social hub, and I attended the local meditation group. The bright little gym was a perfect place for an older stranger to go, without feeling too awkward. Fitness centers are public spaces in which one can be quiet, private. Yet the space affords the support and promise of human interaction. I had been lifting weights since the early 1980s, when the Nautilus centers were first built. (But I don’t have anything near a taut body.) I had discovered that lifting weights was the best way to deal with my high anxiety. The after-sixty weight gain is another story. I met Angela, a wiry trainer, who had married a Mexican immigrant and had two children. Like so many along the northern coast, she struggled to make a living, shifting from massage to fitness and then on to real estate and whatever. You just knew she wanted more out of life than was coming her way. There was beautiful Jack, her workout partner, a gay flight attendant. Soon came Edie, an award-winning young novelist with her latest book being reviewed around the country. (Her abstract painter husband, Stan, from Brooklyn and comically depressed, thought of San Francisco as a stetel.) David was a tall, sweet red-haired local decorator, who worked in San Francisco. By night, he was Amanda, an acerbic and familiar San Francisco drag queen who would go on to host the fundraisers for the Gualala medical clinic, with his partner also in glittery drag. Gordon, the best massage therapist on the coast, fancied himself a hands on healer and on-deck therapist. (I began to wonder who wasn’t a massage therapist in Northern California.) I met Mark, whose lower legs and several fingers had recently been amputated after a death-defying bout with an infection he caught in Africa. He was a wealthy real-estate developer from Reno. I loved his spouse, Fianna, who would die from cancer. John Ford, a retired PhD toxicologist who testified in criminal trials, loved to talk about western films. He became a reverend over the internet. The gym would be sold eventually to a gay man from Georgia, who moved to the coast with his young pharmacist boyfriend. What a motley, clever and interesting crew, not so far from the eccentrics of academia. Sea Ranchers are distinct from the “locals.” Elegant cuisine with paired wine courses is the favored entertainment. These lively dinner parties begin at 6 pm and end by 9 pm, an unwritten code. Our first time out, we pushed back our chairs after the dessert course, as did everyone else. We were settling in for after dinner conversation. Everyone else stood up, thanked the host and hostess, and left. We soon learned this was not eat and run, but local custom. In case a guest doesn’t realize that the party is over at 9pm, one host will bring out the vacuum cleaner, or his bull horn, and make a public announcement.
84 Often retired and older professionals, some Sea Ranchers become amateur writers or painters, unless writing was one’s real profession. Quilter is the most popular talent for Sea Ranch women who belong to quilting leagues; wood worker is the provenance for Sea Ranch men, formerly corporate leaders or successful entrepreneurs, who make beautiful bowls and furniture with expensive wood working tools in their enlarged garages. Still photographer is the third preferred talent, the result of treks into the Antarctic and other exotic journeys by retired couples, he photographing, she cataloguing and scrap booking; and amateur painting, watercolor and oil, appeals to both sexes. Local galleries show these “emerging” artists, now in their sixties and seventies and selling their work to their friends and neighbors. There are also serious and secretive hunters and gatherers – of mushrooms and huckleberries – who rarely shared their haunts. These pursuits didn’t attract me, except art patron, at which I briefly excelled. 75 Here, being a good neighbor and community volunteer, and being committed to environmental causes, are the highest values, with a coveted accolade, “Sea Rancher of the Year.” Last year’s winner is my AA sponsor. 76 I didn’t really fit in but I loved being 60 here. There was little pretense, makeup, or current fashion and much tolerance, a disdain of big egos, and a reverence for nature. This was just what I needed in my search for humility and contentment. And the local eccentrics added just a touch of spice and comfort to my everyday life. My small town world resembled that of Jessica Fletcher, in Murder She Wrote, her neighbors, an extended family, with the older generation the most influential, intelligent, and eccentric. The series was a celebration of Jessica's globe-trotting independence through her work as a bestselling author. In this dream of an active, productive old age, Jessica was always the best detective. She was not married and was dedicated to her work which made her a famous celebrity with influential friends around the world. In fact, Jessica had the best of both dreams of retirement -- she travels internationally and she lives in a Maine village (actually filmed in Mendocino, California) with a close-knit community of old, eccentric friends and neighbors who run the small, quirky town. The program was about self sufficiency, freedom, and the pleasures of work, with a critique of the younger generation along the way. Often marriages were a surface covering violence and hatred in families. The guest appearances of aging actors, familiar to us from their old films and TV series, resembled old friends at a college reunion, whom we recognized and then identified, connecting their aging bodies to their youthful selves. The increase in cosmetic surgeries on aging faces made recognition more difficult. The irony that the coastal community of the series was actually on the west, not east, coast, in Mendocino, California, only one hour from my home in Sea Ranch, is not lost on me. Now I am retired, living on the coast, and writing a book, this book. I am trotting around the world, from Tibet to Manhattan, Nepal, and China; I am running into old friends along the way. Sea Ranch is a small town, a community of fascinating, quirky neighbors, highly educated, kind and idiosyncratic in their own ways. Everyone knows everyone else. All the news comes in the weekly newspaper, the ICO, the Independent Coast Observer, or is conveyed on the treadmills and stair machines in the
85 gym. Being a neighbor and taking time for others is an art form. Unlike any other place I have lived, here I am watched over, cared for, and recognized as a neighbor. No wonder I loved this series. It prophesied my future. 77 The meditation group, like AA, crossed all lines – of age, education, and economics. It met weekly for an hour at Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church, on and around the altar. On my first visit, there were six or seven people sitting cross-legged in front of a burning candle. A humble gathering, nothing fancy. I tiptoed in, as only a klutz can do, noisily arranged my big meditation cushion, which squished, unfolded my several shawls, swish swish, wrapped myself up, took a deep breath, and tried to settle into meditation. This felt so good. A bell signaled the end of the forty-minute meditation. Wow! Time had vanished. Then the others began reading from a book that they passed around. I joined in the circle, noticing the author’s name, Charlotte “Joko” Beck, and the title, Nothing Special. (You already know about Joko Beck.) The words of the text were simple, clear. Just hearing them was uplifting. This was a Buddhist meditation group. Yet it felt completely familiar. I would attend sessions whenever I was in town. Because northern California is filled with spiritual centers, many of the teachers would come to Gualala for weekend retreats. Most were Buddhist. So I began to learn about Buddhism – not to replace Gurumayi or Siddha Yoga but as knowledge to sit beside them. Buddhism, like Siddha Yoga, began in India, with the same roots and cultural traditions. What attracted me to these new texts, and there were many, was the joy I experienced when reading them – my soul was thirsty for this knowledge. I try, and often fail, and then try again, to apply these insights to my everyday life. But old habits are hard to dislodge. I am willful and so emotional in my responses that this will take more time than I have. And compassion was not a first principle or priority in my western education as it is in Buddhism. But there is solace in the effort and wisdom in the intention. Buddhism doesn’t advocate what can be so off-putting to many about Western religions or Muslim and Hindu practices – the centrality of God or deities for attaining access to a spiritual or divine realm. (For AA members, God, particularly the Christian concept of God, is often the greatest stumbling block of the Twelve Steps. AA allays fear and difference by defining God as “a power greater than oneself,” or adding, after “God,” the words, “as we understand him.”) Venerable Henapola Gunaratana writes that Buddhism’s “flavor is intensely clinical, more akin to psychology than religion. It is an ever-ongoing investigation of reality, of the very process of perception.” Buddhism is a system, or a science, of the mind, “down to the very root of consciousness itself.” 78 Buddhism can be, therefore, very dense and complex. Older monks at the monasteries in Tibet are, in essence, studying for their PhDs. While there is much to learn in this 2600 year old tradition, it is also simple, for everyone, and to be used in everyday life.
86 There are many schools of Buddhism. But one thing is constant: Almost every book I read tells the founding story of Buddha’s journey from the luxury and illusion of living in the palace as a prince to the reality of the world with illness, aging, and death. Eventually I realized that this could also be my story -- one of developing spiritual awareness of old age, sickness, and death and the freedom that can come from that awareness. “Prince Shakyamuni [Buddha] was confronted with the inevitability of old age, sickness, and death,” and he wondered why these were an “inherent part of the human condition.” 79 Although a young and wealthy man, he left the luxury of his palace and the kingdom and “became a spiritual seeker in the traditional Indian way. He wanted to resolve the very reasons for birth, sickness, old age, and death.” So he lived the life of a wandering, penniless monk, begging, meditating and practicing rigorous asceticism. But his questions were not answered. He was emaciated but not enlightened. He eventually gave up strict asceticism and advocated what he called “the middle way.” He continued to meditate. Finally he realized that all things are just as they are, yet we are not aware of this. We concern ourselves with our “likes and dislikes, our gains and losses. (xi) But even with gains, we suffer because we fear losing the gain. We hold onto objects, experiences, feelings, and people with great attachment. Out of this attachment, we create separateness.” Everything we “experience as self and environment are temporary and constantly changing, and if we are attached to them they cause us suffering.” (xii) I was holding on to so many things – particularly possessions; I could obsess over my losses on the stock market, never satisfied with my gains, which I would fear losing. I held on to old sad feelings of inadequacy, including a feeling of being separate from everyone. I couldn’t shake my shame hang-over from my addiction, particularly the emotional harm I believed I had caused Rob and Dae. Whenever they experienced any disappointments, fear, or doubts, I blamed myself. I was still attached and hence still fearful. As I continued to rehearse my past offenses and failures, I created my own suffering . . . . in my brand new life, which had no remnants or reminders of my old and over past, except in my mind. Buddha summarized what he had learned in the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, one of his earliest teachings: “1) suffering, 2) the cause of suffering, 3) the cessation of suffering, and 4) the path that leads to the extinction of suffering.” Suffering is unawareness of the impermanent nature of all things. We are in constant struggle, rejecting what we dislike and seeking what we desire. This “rejecting and seeking is the cause of suffering.” (Master Sheng-yen, xii) Buddha (or Gotama, or Gautama, other name s, from various countries, for Buddha) observed, “As one craving after another took possession of his mind and heart, he noticed how human beings were ceaselessly yearning to become something else, go somewhere else, and acquire something they do not have. It is as though they were continually seeking a form of rebirth, a new kind of existence, even constantly changing our position, having a snack, talking to someone.” 80 (Armstrong 74/75)
87 Recovering addicts recognize these cascading desires, which are never satiating, only endless. Beck calls them “emotion-thoughts” which we “fuss over.” I could never do or be enough. I could never know enough, or publish enough or be recognized enough. My thoughts, not the reality of my life, were the cause. Buddha taught that suffering can be overcome, that if we realize the “fleeting nature of all things,” suffering can be extinguished. The eightfold path is the way to do this. For his “forty-five year ministry, the Buddha taught all that was necessary to reach the goal of liberation.” And he advised his disciples not to depend on him for leadership, but to “be islands unto your selves, refuges unto yourself.” 81 “For Gotama [Buddha], and others in India then, the prospect of living one life after another was horrifying.” Today, many of us “feel that our lives are too short and would love the chance to do it all again. But what preoccupied Gotama and his contemporaries was not so much the possibility of rebirth as the horror of re-death. It was bad enough to have to endure the process of becoming senile or chronically sick and undergoing a painful death once, but to be forced to go through all this again and again seemed intolerable and pointless.” (Armstrong 9) There had to be another answer to existence, to the meaning of life. 82 Buddha found it in the Upanishads, 83 which emerged shortly before his birth. A core teaching was that the highest, eternal reality was identical to one’s own inner Self (Atman). (In Armstrong, 25) This belief is also the foundation of Hindu variations, particularly Siddha Yoga. It eliminated the need for a priestly elite. Nirvana was to be “found in the very heart of each person’s being.” (Armstrong, 86) 84 A memory changed Buddha’s (Gotama’s) spiritual quest – from one of rigorous austerities, what we might see as deprivation. He remembered a moment of bliss when he was a boy. It had come when he was sitting alone, in nature, and after he had felt the pain of other creatures. It was “a rapture which takes us outside the body and beyond the prism of our own egotism, unpremeditated joy, with nothing to do with craving and greed.” “This surge of selfless empathy had brought him a moment of spiritual release.” (Armstrong, 67) “Had his teachers been wrong? Instead of torturing our reluctant selves, could we achieve enlightenment effortlessly and spontaneously?” (Armstrong, 68) The answer is “yes,” if we have tamed our restless mind and emotions. Stephen Batchelor, a former monk in “both the Zen and Tibetan traditions,” points out that the four “truths of Buddha” are “not dogmas, simply beliefs. They must be experiences.” (5) 85 If they were only beliefs, it would be a religion, not a spiritual practice. He reiterates this point: “The dharma is not something to believe in but something to do.” (17) 86 This notion of lived, experienced thought, knowledge taken into action, is significant for me. There is an immense distance between what Batchelor calls “something to believe in” versus “something to do,” between intellectual and experiential knowledge. I call the latter wisdom – when our thoughts, our actions, and our words are
88 on the same track. I must confess that I believe in and have often professed meditation more than I have actually meditated; there can be a misfire among my thoughts, my words, and my actions. When my actions begin to speak louder than my words or beliefs, then I will be a true meditator. Batchelor takes the Buddha’s story and applies it to our everyday lives. 87 “We too immure ourselves in the ‘palaces’ of what is familiar and secure. We too sense there is more to life than indulging desires and warding off fears . . . we realize that the only certainty in life is that it will end. We don’t like the idea; we try to forget that too. . . Everyone collaborates in everyone else’s forgetting . . . We seek to arrange the details of our world in such a way that we feel secure: surrounded by what we like, protected against what we dislike. Once our material existence is more or less in order, we may turn our attention to the psychomanagement of our neuroses. Failing which, the worst anxieties can be kept at bay by a judicious use of drugs.” (23) But none of this works for long. Pain, illness, loss, and death keep returning in various forms. “We still don’t get what we want and still get what we don’t want. . . . We may know this, but do we understand it?” We cover it up, forget it, and return to the distractions of the world . . . “For were we to understand it, even in a glimpse, it might change everything.” (23) When addicts have this aha moment, they begin to recover. Although I have had intense spiritual experiences, and loved the tranquility that came with meditation, everything for me had not changed. My emotions could be roiled by my thoughts. Anger could best me by causing me to react unkindly. Self-pity and feminist injustice/aggression could turn my wonderful life into a sad tale. Although I knew that the problem came from my own mind, and was reflected in my roiled emotions, I looked for someone or something to blame. Because we were together most of the time after 2002, Jonathan was often the perceived cause – by becoming irritated or angry or moody (which is only human). Or he was a tease – a brat, actually, who would continue to poke until he got a response (which can be inhuman). At these rascally moments, he was the bad boy with a stick prodding the frog to jump. Ignoring him never worked, he continued until I eventually responded negatively and hence, hurtfully. Then he would feel shame, and I would feel irritated by his depressed mood – and my irritation would trigger his – and around and around we would go -- all this from nothing! And about nothing! It (nothing) could be exhausting, it could escalate into a full-force blowup. The key is that our dramas were about nothing -- in the present. “Nothing” was a deep well of past injuries and outmoded emotional responses. Which is why nothing was our biggest problem. And one of which we initially had little awareness. Not surprisingly, we could rarely remember what “nothing” was. Why? Because it truly was nothing. This nothing solidified into a series of skirmishes. We might play tit for tat, matching point for counterpoint, or try to establish who did what first, or who did it the most or the loudest. The scenes could be initially playful, always over nothing, but the nothing could escalate into a ferocious storm of yelling, threatening to leave, and then
89 walking out, 88 and always coming back, immediately. How could words so affect me? I knew about maya, about the illusion of language. I had been on a spiritual path for years, what happened to my discipline? Within seconds, I could morph into a screaming banshee. Where was the serene meditator? The loving partner? The gentle mother? My beloved, my relationship, could be a sharp rock, indeed. When I defended my position, fortified with self-righteousness, I couldn’t see the jewel. Or anything else except my distraught emotions. Elegant dinners, in lovely venues, were spoiled by my interior hurt and reactive anger. But when I listened, remained quiet, or apologized for my furor, my rage would melt, and I could see, with compassion rather than my lust for justice, the jewel that was us, or the jewel that was me, or at least the charm of the restaurant. I began to see that all my years of ardent spiritual practice had primarily been focused on my self-contained actions – initially the practices of meditating, chanting, and selfless service. I had worked on accepting others, on having no expectations or attachment to the outcome of my actions, overcoming my fears, including fear of public speaking by accepting frequent engagements; and letting go of my attachment to my children and to my parents. Although I had faced death, it is, after all, inevitable, neither a choice nor a personal failure. In certain ways, my practice had been all about Me -granted a Me with higher aspirations. Buddhism is all about reactions – and emotions – what Beck calls emotionthoughts. It is a rigorous science through which we can train and discipline the mind, body, and spirit to literally see and react to the world and everything in it with equanimity and compassion rather than destructive emotions. Buddhism importantly includes you, the you that comprises our mutual humanity and prevents us from being separate, a deathly and lonely state. And it took a relationship with Jonathan for me to become aware of this – that you and I are one, and the same. Eventually I would see the larger reason for this newfound knowledge – as an antidote to my self-sufficient way of living alone. Whenever I would experience upsetting emotions, I usually had them in private. My emotions were secret, or so I imagined. When my old computer crashed, losing 200 pages of my book, High Anxiety, I completely freaked out – only my dogs BP and Baggins saw or heard the tirade. When my father had criticized me as I drove him to the hospital for his regular blood transfusions, I could wallow in self-pity, but no one would know. I could be irritable, I could be angry and hurt – without consequences. My reactions (and pride) belonged mainly to me. As long as I lived alone, the shame of experiencing what I believed to be negative emotions, particularly rejection, hurt, and anger, was manageable. Only my daughter, on the telephone in New York, could hear through my pretense. But when I began a 24/7 relationship, Jonathan would react to my reactions – sometimes with irritation or hurt. And given his narcissistic bent, he took most things personally. Initially his responses bewildered me – I was just talking to myself out loud (which I had been doing for fifteen years! thank you very much!) Or, I’m allowed to express my feelings towards inanimate objects like my computer, aren’t I? Or I would deny my emotions, pretending they didn’t exist. No! Of course not! I’m not angry!
90 But he saw through my denials of hurt or anger. He would accuse me of being “inauthentic,” which made him even more upset. It was initially so infuriating to have no private space for excess or negative emotions. “Yes, I’m furious but it will pass if we ignore it,” just wouldn’t cut it with him. To be honest, I often didn’t know what emotion I was feeling other than he was over-reacting and I was being treated unjustly, unfairly. It was an intense pain, almost claustrophobic, like being buried alive. And because I viewed these emotions as illegitimate, base feelings, I couldn’t acknowledge them, at least out loud. But I did know how to childishly, furiously, act them out. The minefields of emotions that would play out caught me by surprise. I regularly packed my bags and left, dragging my little, reluctant dog, Rishi, after me. But I always came back, sometimes minutes later. I didn’t want to leave him, I just wanted to escape my own skin, my own shame at being less than noble or kind or tolerant or perfect. I hated failing. I couldn’t deal with criticism. And he judged, as a matter of course. I couldn’t withstand another’s anger at me. And his hurt was expressed as anger. Or Jonathan would come after me. Which is what I wanted and needed – reassurance that he did love me, that he was at fault, not me. I hated being wrong and being the bad guy. How could the martyr be wrong, or the villain? So much sound and fury and raw pain coming from within me. And from within him. Our pasts could be very heavy. Where did this anger and hurt come from? Where had it been hiding all these years? It took two of the finest Jungian psychoanalysts, Dr. John Beebe in San Francisco, and the extraordinary insights of Dr. Ashok Bedi in Milwaukee, to explain these destructive, warring emotions. Jungian psychoanalysis, my fourth amateur knowledge is remarkably compatible with Buddhist (and Hindu) philosophy, particularly regarding the stages of life and the great value of old age as a time of spiritual endeavor. (Dr. Ashok Bedi, Jonathan’s psychoanalyst who came from a lineage of Indian gurus, or teachers, has entwined these two systems, enriching one by elaborating the other. 89) But I must confess that I was not drawn to reading Jung as I had previously been to Freud. His prose was dense and my brain was tired of working so hard. So my knowledge is secondary and cursory, just enough to make sense of my analyst’s commentary on my life. 90 Jung, the loyal disciple and heir of Freud, broke with him in 1913. The reasons were personal and intellectual. Jungian analysis was developing substantial differences from Freudian, 91 including the role of the analyst, which Jung saw as involved and participatory. Rather than seeing symptoms as a “form of futile suffering,” Jung saw them as “an invaluable opportunity to become conscious and to grow.” Symptoms were the “growing pains of a soul struggling to escape fear and find fulfillment.” (125) Dr. Bedi greeted each repeated sad tale of our conflicts with a joyous “Wonderful! This is great! Your souls are involved in a dance with each other. Do you want my feedback?” Unfailingly, this was always his positive response to dark moods and anguished voices. It was hard to hold onto feelings of tragic, hopeless, woe is me injustice in the face of such authoritative, intelligent optimism. Dr. John Beebe, my shrink, took our ragged
91 scenes as clashes between our types which he would then unravel, like an intuitive magician. For Dr. Bedi as for Jung, “Pain is a valuable spur to self-examination, an incentive to ‘wake-up’.” The Jungian analyst “encourages the patient to participate in his suffering,” to “confront its meaning and mobilize the healing power of the unconscious.” (128) Which sounds remarkably similar to Buddhist teachings, not surprising given Jung’s fascination with Eastern philosophy, including the I Ching. Jung had a deep spiritual (not religious) bent and believed that “the more secular, materialistic, and compulsively extraverted our civilization became, the greater the unhappiness.” (129) Jungian analysis encourages us to accept “full responsibility for our circumstances.” (128) Each of our therapists traced problems and solutions back to their respective client. As a result, I loved joint sessions with Dr. Bedi, and Jonathan loved sessions with my therapist, Dr. Beebe. Jonathan would be amazed that he would get off so easily, for something he had initiated. Or that I would not retaliate against Beebe’s admonitions. True, I would try to hedge and wiggle out of accepting full responsibility, always seeking qualifications and offering explanations. But blame, like partial responsibility, just wouldn’t fly with either therapist. “The real therapy only begins when the patient sees that it is no longer father and mother who are standing in [her] way, but [herself.]” (131) 92 While Freud looked backward, often to infantile sexuality as a cause, “Jung’s tendency was to look forward,” to goals. Not surprisingly, given his recurring and painful cancer of the mouth and use of cocaine and morphine, Freud feared old age. For Jung, old age is a continuation of our development. He called this lifelong process individuation – a confrontation “between the conscious subject who experienced and struggled to survive, and the unconscious ‘other,’ in the personalities and powers that forced themselves on him.” (38) This “heightened consciousness” of what was unconscious sounds similar to the Buddhist notion of “awareness.” When he was 82, Jung wrote that “the only events of my life worth telling are those when the imperishable world erupted into this transitory one . . . All other memories of travels, people . . . have paled beside these interior happenings.”(43) The thing about death that impressed Jung the most was “the lack of fuss the unconscious makes of it. Death seemed to him to be a goal in itself, something to be welcomed.” (45) While this is diametrically different from Freud, who feared death, it is also different from Buddhism. Whereas Jung’s ultimate question was whether we are related to something infinite or not, for Buddhists the answer could only be affirmative, if they even asked the question. (42) In 1921, Jung published Psychological Types – an area of his complex, varied theory in which my analyst, Dr. John Beebe, is a noted authority. 93 Jung’s types refer to the way we perceive and respond to reality and how “people differ in using the four components.” (85) 94 My analysis deals with the collision and interplay between Jonathan’s and my types. Beebe tells me that I am an extroverted intuitive, and that
92 Jonathan is an introverted feeling type – that we are diametrically oppositional. If I can understand his type, “I will have the keys to the kingdom,” and there is nothing I will not be able to grasp. Our opposition continues in what Jung calls auxiliary functions. Thinking is my auxiliary function and sensation (dealing with the logistics of the outer world) is my inferior function, my real weak spot. Jonathan’s is thinking. And sensation is his auxiliary function. But the good news is that because of our typologies, we are also predictable. Hence, our squabbles can be dissected by an authority versed in Jung’s types. Ergo, Dr. John Beebe. The intellectual explanation of what triggers pain and conflict causes both to disperse, like popping bubbles or balloons. Amazing! For four years, we regularly called Beebe and Bedi every week, sometimes adding joint-emergency telephone sessions, CPR interventions to resuscitate a momentarily drowning relationship, huddling around one of our cell phones on speaker, shouting our various complexes (“Can you hear me?”), detailing personal arguments (“Are you still there?”), while walking through some airport, or freeway gas station (“Hello, Dr. Bedi/Beebe”), or riding in cabs, never noticing how strange this must have seemed to our drivers or passersby, hearing intimate details declared in public space, with no awareness of being overheard. (“Yes, Dr. Beebe, Jonathan’s mother‘s rage.”). Emotionally distressed and sometimes furious, we competed for the status of injured party, both wanting to be right, or to receive credit, and oblivious to everything except the need to resolve our misunderstanding and our respective pain. In retrospect, like all of our arguments and scenes, these are very, very funny. Very gradually, with the weekly guidance of two psychotherapists and the collaboration of Jonathan, I began to gain awareness of and take responsibility for my reactions – for the emotions they unleashed and then unloaded on others. 95 Gradually I am defusing their old familial sources and patterns – particularly my intense response to anger or rebuke from men, a response locked in during my childhood with a good father who also, and often, yelled, slammed doors, and stormed out. As these reactions are being slowly tamed, I am changing, at last. I had not been able to do this alone. It took a partner who wanted what he calls “emotional intimacy.” This also meant practicing the principles of Buddhism (and Siddha Yoga) in my everyday life instead of simply enjoying them in my thoughts. (There is physical pleasure in reading books about spirituality, a soothing, enriching intellectual delight which can become a substitute for practicing spirituality.) The key to all the various schools of Buddhism is that “the realization of the Buddha’s teaching is not an intellectual or philosophical pursuit . . . it must be put into practice in daily life.” “Only in this way can it free us from the fetters of disturbing emotional afflictions and suffering, and enable us to realize enlightenment.” As the American Buddhist scholar, Robert Thurman, tells us: 96 “The enlightenment of the Buddha was not primarily a religious discovery. It was not a mystical encounter with ‘God’ or a god . . .The Buddha’s enlightenment was rather a human being’s direct, exact, and comprehensive experience of the nature and structure of reality. . . ‘Buddha’ is not a personal name; it is a title, meaning ‘awakened,’ ‘enlightened.’” (9) 97
93 Similarly to Siddha Yoga, any of us can attain enlightenment, or Buddhahood. And we can do it in this lifetime, not after death, in some other place, but right here and now, no matter who we are, or what we have done, no matter how smart we are or are not. It is there for everyone – if we can see it. 98 With the Buddhist meditation group as my touchstone, I spent the fall semester in Sea Ranch trying, and usually failing, to write this book. I had an alliterative title, On Death and Dating, but I had little to say about the latter. We were very busy just being together and becoming a couple. And very restless. He loved great hotels, and I loved the adventure of new places. We both enjoyed being with our children, doubled for each of us. We wandered from place to place, sometimes productively, always enjoyably. In December of 2001, Jonathan arranged for us to spend two weeks on the CEO fast track of the Mayo Clinics – in Jacksonville, Florida and Rochester, Minnesota -- seeking a diagnosis for my mysterious grand mal seizures. During my four-day “fasting” test, he settled into a corner of my hospital room, nesting, creating a miniature office complete with computer, printer, and hanging files. He loved “playing office,” his favorite game as a child, and served as a gracious host to the battalion of specialists who were trying to diagnose the source of my ailment. The team of doctors concluded that rather than epilepsy, I had a rare pancreas disorder – producing an excess of insulin that would devour my blood sugar, precipitating grand mal seizures. They strongly recommended surgery to remove a section of my pancreas; I declined. I knew about the pain and risks of abdominal surgery from a 1982 near death experience and six weeks in the hospital. I would be careful about my diet. And the disease has abated, at least when I don’t have sugar. In October, we had visited Hawaii to meet Jonathan’s parents, George and Dorothy, and his brother, and sister-in-law, Dave and Kathleen, from whom he had been estranged. The welcome we received from this witty and loving foursome was generous beyond my imagination. This began a joyous process of reconciliation and healing. It started with a simple question I asked Jonathan. “What do you want? A loving relationship with your brother or do you want to be right?” He picked love and stuck to it (with a few small relapses of defensive righteousness). The reconciliation was fostered by his parents’ acceptance of the past and of me, and Dave and Kathleen’s graciousness and hospitality. They included us in their social events, along with hosting fabulous parties, and making us feel completely at home. Bygones became just that. I loved them all, and I will never forget their loving acceptance of me. We visited Honolulu every other month. In January of 2002, after renting a home in Kailua for six weeks, we almost moved to Oahu. Fortunately (or not), our bid on a beach house in Kailua was not accepted. After Jonathan’s mild heart attack in Honolulu, we returned to Silicon Valley and bought a condominium in Menlo Park, near Stanford University’s medical center, 3 ½ hours from Sea Ranch. We found superb specialists for our respective medical problems – Jonathan loved Rob’s cardiologist. And we knew we had found the perfect climate and setting for our old age.
94 Now we each owned a house in California – hedging out bets in case things didn’t work out. We lived together, economically separate but equal. That summer of 2002, wanting to live fulltime in California, not Wisconsin, I retired from the University, sold my condominium in Milwaukee, and moved everything to my home in Sea Ranch. To be honest, Jonathan and his brother Dave, with great perception, called me on my fear of relationships, forcing an outcome. I made the decision to leave the University and my hard-earned, rather plush job and status quickly, so that I would not change my mind. Commitment still terrified me, being equated with imprisonment as it had been for so many years. Meanwhile, Jonathan had given his wife all the personal property in his divorce. And he had given up more than one-half of his wealth, no small sum. The divorce was emotionally messy, expensive, with vitriol to spare. Although he had few personal possessions, Jonathan hauled truckloads of “business” to his new office in Gualala, California. He also kept his movie size popcorn popper, the first prop for our home movie theater. We began the process of remodeling and redecorating two houses, with two talented gay decorators – no small task and sometimes a tense one. Jonathan’s mind worked deductively; mine was strictly inductive. Jonathan worked through a step by step, logical process, I used intuition and randomness. That I would begin before I had a plan for the whole drove him nuts. So did my making mistakes and then returning them to the store. He began to think I had a distribution business. To me, he spent too much time talking and meeting. I wanted to get on with it! Impatient as I was, I always trusted his sense of style; he has superb taste and is highly creative. My indecisiveness loved deferring the final choice to him. In these instances, his judgments served me very well. Eventually, I would realize the great value of his commentary on me, what Dr. Beebe would call “the eyes in the back of my head.” Life was busier. Our respective constituencies had doubled. Between us, there were two parents, four adult children, four in-laws, two siblings, Dave and Nancy, along with Kathleen, and, since 2002, three beautiful granddaughters: Remi, Siena, and Alessandra. Regular travels to Denver, where Jonathan’s son, David, lived, and Tulsa, where his daughter, Amy had just moved, began to heal old familial wounds. We regularly spent time in New York with Dae and Larry, who loved and admired Jonathan. He would become their business mentor. Rob immediately liked and respected him, and would come to love him. Amy would warm up to me eventually, but this took some painful time for both of us. She is an extraordinary woman, teacher, and mother. Jonathan and I were buddies, we were partners, we hung out, we made new friends, and we traveled – together, often for 24/7. 99 Our days began with coffee, The New York Times, and morning talks in bed; they ended with books in bed. We read sections to each other, sharing thoughts and encounters from the day. We wrote together, we went to movies, plays, AA meetings, and lectures together, we decorated two houses together, we spent time with our adult children together, and we cared for our granddaughters together. Jonathan was infinitely more patient than I was; he loved
95 childcare and child play. I loved the girls and looked forward to their growing independence and conversation. We all loved Disney cruises in the middle of winter. 100 Jonathan and I also had therapy, alone and together. Why? Because along with the intense love came arguments. And Jonathan was, by nature, hypercritical. And, by nature, I was not at all a perfectionist, along with being unaware of others around me. We had skirmishes, squabbles, and full-scale battles. If they occurred on the way to a dinner party, we would turn around sometimes three or four times, drive back home, decide to go, turn around, etcetera , before arriving in some dizzy state of frazzled detente. Then we would experience a usually delightful dinner party. The ride home was always touch and go – the slightest tinder could ignite into a forest fire. Several times I almost walked off airplanes (to Honolulu), or refused to get on board (in Japan). High drama indeed. Why? The simplest reason is that I had lived alone for so many years and had no skills for long-term intimacy and interaction. And although Jonathan had been married for 35 years to the same woman, he had serious unsolved issues around women, and had escaped from confronting them in his own deceptive way. Sea Ranch is about the present – in California, with new friends, and without a career and the identity that had accrued from thirty years as a Professor. At 60 my life abruptly shifted directions, allowing me to go back and clear up old interior wounds, along with granting me companionship, adventure, and intimacy. Dating is about aging and acceptance, of another and of myself. Dating, like motherhood, is about unconditional love. And it is about the sheer pain that comes with change – the change that it takes to truly accept myself and another. This pain is a step on the way to joy and freedom, this pain, if acknowledged and endured, transforms into gratitude. This is Charlotte Beck’s pain, the sharp rocks; and it is also the passionate anguish Rumi wrote about. Acknowledging, embracing, or leaning into pain is a key to Eastern traditions of meditation and philosophy. This is a far cry from the Western pursuit of pain avoidance and the denial of death that drives consumer/drug culture and most of our lives. For years, I tried to build up my ego, only to learn that it was also the source of my fear, anxiety, and anger. Solution: turn around, face it, and walk through fear rather than run away from it. This can be like a walk through fire, only to discover at the end that the fire didn’t burn, it was only burning in my mind. Being Nobody Going Nowhere, like Nothing Special, is a perfect title for this process. 101 The sense of ego is miniscule, humble. The author, Ayya Khema, was German-Jewish and lived through the Second World War. 102 Afterward, she became a Buddhist nun and founded a Theravada monastery in Australia, despite the fact that this tradition “denied her full ordination.” She became an activist, founding several Buddhist centers in Sri Lanka and Germany, and teaching around the world, including California, until her death in 1997. 103 Khema describes one persistent pattern of my life: “In daily living, we try to get rid of unpleasant feelings by getting rid of the people who trigger them in us, by trying to get rid of situations, by blaming others instead of looking at the feeling . . . This reaction
96 of ours, trying to keep the pleasant and trying to get rid of the unpleasant, is a circular movement . . .It doesn’t have a doorway . . . [it is] a never-ending circle. The only opening leading out . . . is to look at the feeling and not to react.” (31) Not react? Not defend the injustice of it all? Not blame my parents, my economic circumstances, my former husband, my job, or even child rearing? Or find an escape hatch or clause out of a painful situation? Or hedge the truth? Deny? Cry? How would not reacting be possible? I have left so many relationships behind, I have run away from so many skirmishes with people – I got rid of, or iced, people who triggered any unpleasant thoughts. Rarely did I ever “look at the feeling.” I used to take valium to avoid any “unpleasant feelings.” (32) And thus, in one “situation” after another, I repeated the same behavior, trapped in a circular logic. Khema’s solution is so simple, so easy, and it doesn’t cost anything. (Initially, it can hurt.) Khema suggests: “There’s no one to blame for the feelings that arise. These are just feelings that arise and cease. [I love the comfort of “just feelings,” without the emotional charge, without the negative punch, without the high drama and shame.] Watch the feeling and know. Unless you stand back and look at an unpleasant feeling and not dislike it you will never be able to effect a change.” Our mind will be like “a muddy driveway on which the car goes back and forth and the ruts get deeper and deeper. . . When we see that we don’t need to pay any attention to our thoughts, it becomes easier to drop them. When we see that we don’t have to react to feelings, it is much easier to drop the reaction.” (33) I don’t need to “pay attention to my thoughts?” I will not die from my feelings? Where did I get the idea that not to react was subservience, timidity, or even passive aggression? And that to flare up in a ready retort or defense or justification was a sign of courage and openness? Just “drop the reaction?” A sweet command indeed. But for me, trained like Pavlov’s drooling dog, no small task. My solution to painful feelings was to have an emotional outburst and then escape, which sometimes took the form of shopping. I simply covered up or replaced one feeling with another. These quick fixes never lasted. Why? The causes of human problems are: “wanting pleasurable sensations, wanting the gratification, often not getting them and never being able to keep them.” The first step of letting go of wanting is “to sit with an uncomfortable sensation. Not wriggling and shifting around, not trying to get out of this discomfort by changing position. There is no wriggling out of suffering. Suffering cannot be eliminated in this way. The only out of it is to let go of craving. One can’t wriggle out of craving. One really has to let go it.” (60) We can practice not wiggling out of suffering in meditation. The discomfort in our sitting positions “gives us a wonderful opportunity to learn about our sensual desires . . .” One leg will hurt, I move, then the next leg cramps, I shift direction . . . etc. Or one entertainment finishes, boredom sets in, I want another. “It’s a lost cause.” (61) ---------------
97 Being in a “serious relationship” (a few steps above “dating”), which is where I now found myself, was the last thing I would have imagined for my future as an old woman. My future would be living alone or in an ashram. And these are noble choices for those who already know how to have close, intimate relationships. I didn’t. Nor did I know much about real tolerance and vulnerability. In addition, my deep-seated belief in my own inadequacy and unattractiveness were dark notions that needed to surface in order to be removed. It took dating and then a relationship to do this. Now this might sound paradoxical, to say nothing of masochistic. Or sadistic. Perhaps. But it is also about experiencing and unraveling the mystery of many women’s lives – how to truly love another and not give your self away – that I have spent my professional life analyzing in film and on TV, and in my personal life escaping. Initially, I had two ingrained obstacles to overcome – obstacles which I saw as achievements. I think they might be typical of women of my generation, women who were young in the 1950s and 1960s. The struggle for me has been to become the author of my own life. I wanted to write my own script, as well as being the lead and directing the show. I was not comfortable as a supporting character, I liked center stage. (And when I had it, I also feared it and often didn’t know what to do with it.) Maybe that’s why I admired and wrote about “I Love Lucy.” And other strong women who took center stage – Katherine Hepburn, Jane Fonda, Rosalind Russell, Amelia Earhart, Babe Didrikson Zaharias. I loved paying my own way and being economically independent. In fact, like the early feminist, Charlotte Perkins, I believed this was the only way to truly become independent. Unlike Perkins, I thought I had escaped the narratives of others, including my mother’s and the 1950s, and had succeeded in charting my own idiosyncratic course, guided by spiritual principles. Herein lies the rub – spiritual principles: the ambition, competition, and compulsion to be center stage diminish or are lifted. As the mind becomes still and the ego smaller, quieter, the personality can recede, move offstage to the wings, witness rather than perform, watch rather than be watched. Lucy could never do this, even when the series left New York and moved to the quiet suburbs of Connecticut near the end of the run. Lucy and Ethel, now in their Pendleton country clothes, created a new upper middle class stage, replete with suburban decor and chicken farming. But there was only one star – Lucy. For the rest of her life, as a person and a character, she appeared only as Lucy, with her flaming, upswept red hair, arched eyebrows, and false eyelashes framing wide eyes. In her sixties and seventies, her voice became huskier, almost sultry, but everything else was the same. Older now, like Lucy, could I let myself, unlike Lucy, age, with acceptance? Could I give up my metaphorical center stage? Could I take a back row and quieter seat? Could I let someone else write at least part of the show? Like Jonathan, or Dae, or Rob? Could I change? After all, dating, like death, is co-authored. Dating could be harder because the co-author is human, not divine.
98 The second obstacle: Unlike Lucy, who was rarely alone, I also believed that living alone was the only way for me to be not just independent but free -- for me a very high and elusive attainment. Could I adapt to the constant presence of someone else? Could I survive all the talk that comes with another person? Their quirks, habits, ailments, and sounds? Would I ever get to sleep? Or find time to meditate or write? What about reading in bed at night? My habits were deeply ingrained after almost thirty man-less (and thirteen child-less) years. 104 I carried on cogent conversations with myself and answered my own questions, truly enjoying my own company. Coupled with my independence, these could be irksome traits indeed for a partner, particularly a forceful personality who was used to being in charge (with a CEO’s assistants and secretaries) and who also loved center stage. Fortunately, I had learned some things about a relationship from my years of spiritual practices. Love is the highest value and goal. And I loved this wonderful man. I could see the goodness and purity that is Jonathan. I had frequent glimpses of his gentle soul, his fragile sense of himself, deep within his Chairman of the Board traits. I had found a good, kind man. And although he was not a meditator, we were both on a spiritual path. I had much to learn and to gain from him. In Buddhism Without Beliefs, Stephen Batchelor’s epigram is from Marcel Proust, and it perfectly captures the life of the Buddha as a model for all of our lives. “We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness, which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world.” 105 The rest of this book is about my journey through the wilderness of emotions, a sometimes frightening place that came into view only after being reflected in the mirror of a relationship. I would understand Marge’s comments when I began dating – “now the work can really begin.” After making the same mistakes, over and over, I became aware that the pain I felt did not come from Jonathan. It came from within me. I could indulge it and act it out, or I could let it just be until it passed. It took time for me to realize that my emotions were not inevitable triggers to a response, that I had a choice: to up the ante and inflict more pain, or not, to let my hurt and anger turn into reactions and actions, or not. I love Proust’s image of wisdom as our point of view of the world, a point we reach “at last.” There is such relief in “at last.” But “at last” can take years for some of us. An Afterthought In Nora Gallagher’s Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith, 106 I identified with her description of a fight with Vincent, her partner: “It was one of those stupid marital fights in which things escalate so fast you’re left with your head spinning, and words come out of your mouth you cannot believe. Worse, I provoked it.” This could be my story: “I work against myself. I enact and reenact old, painful patterns . . . In the early days of therapy, I thought, Well, now I know about this, I’ll change. To my
99 astonishment, it was nearly impossible. I had formed a complete self around unconscious, simple rules: I won’t get what I need; I have to solve everyone’s problems; it’s better to build up resentment, provoke a fight, and then lick my wounds in private.” (136) Gradually, through therapy, Jungian analysis, she “found an antidote to poison.” “These experiences built up in me, into memory, making a place and a voice inside myself that was less anxious, more forgiving, and had a longer sense of time. But it was . . . painstakingly slow . . . My new behavior got good results, but it necessitated a new identity . . . if the old rules didn’t hold, how was I to understand my life?” (137)
100 CHAPTER 7:
An Asian Odyssey: Buddhist Boot Camp
Centuries ago, Buddhism spread from India throughout Asia, taking two general forms: Mahayana and Theravada. “Mahayana Buddhism shapes the cultures of China, Korea, Japan, Nepal, Tibet, and Vietnam. The most widely known of the Mahayana systems is Zen, in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and the U.S. The Theravada system of practice prevails . . . in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos and Cambodia.” 107 The most significant difference is that “The more popular Mahayana school virtually deified . . . the Buddha as an eternal presence in the lives of the people.” “Theravada stress[ed] the importance of yoga.” (Armstrong, Buddha, xxiii) From 2003 to 2006, Jonathan and I traveled to all these Asian countries, excepting Sri Lanka, and adding Bhutan. The experience was magical and deeply moving. That our travels paralleled the historical spread of Buddhism is, in retrospect, more than coincidence. But it was not something we consciously planned or even realized at the time. We simply felt that these were the places we needed to explore and experience. Were we simply curious tourists or were we on a pilgrimage? I think a bit of both – the quest for adventure mingled with the quiet sense of pilgrimage. We visited hundreds of Buddhist temples and monasteries -- spinning prayer wheels, pranaming (kneeling and bowing), meditating, and making offerings. The exotic and the sacred merged in these historical and holy places. Jonathan engaged countless saffron robed monks living in and tending these sites in conversations. For him, language was never a barrier. In all the countries, the monks ended up smiling, or laughing, as did the children who would inevitably surround him. He always left an offering, along with joy and good will. As I look back, the guidance was so subtle and soft that I failed to notice. But maybe the universe’s plan only emerges in retrospect for some of us. In 2003, we traveled with a small group of twelve, led by Geographic Expeditions through the Himalayas in Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan. When the Chinese cancelled our airline tickets out of Tibet, we made a night time trek in SUVs through the Himalayas, walking across the border to Nepal. In 2004 we spent six weeks in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), and Thailand, initially with a CEO group in Hanoi and Saigon. The journey back through the aftereffects of the Vietnam War, or as the Vietnamese call it, the American War, paralleled the Iraq War (another American War), which we watched in our hotel rooms on CNN’s international channel in a devastating juxtaposition.
101 One thing was very clear – Vietnam is on the entrepreneurial move, with more than one-half of the population 25 years or younger. They could soon own all of Southeast Asia. In 2005, we marveled at China’s economic and architectural growth, visiting the major cities and its huge dam project, the Three Gorges, an explosion of construction that is a wonder of the 21st Century. As in Vietnam, we spent the first of three weeks with CEO in Shanghai. In several countries, we took long boat trips on famous historical rivers. We briefly visited Korea and Japan, only staying in the major cities. 108 These sacred places would touch both of us in ways we couldn’t imagine or initially detect. We entered a period of emotional boot camp, a Buddhist training ground in awareness of our emotions, and of our untrained reactions to each other. As educational, delightful, and moving as all these glamorous and eye-opening adventures were, the distances were shorter and less dramatic than our inner journeys – which were revelatory, sometimes painful, often very funny, and always conciliatory. Acceptance and surrender are not for sissies; neither are patience, humility, and tolerance, which take the courage of warriors. While we both had great compassion for the suffering inflicted on these countries by war and despotic rule, we sometimes had little compassion or empathy for each other – we could become encased, or trapped, in our respective dramas of imagined hurt and rejection – imprisoned in our pasts. That we visited famous war prisons in Vietnam and Cambodia is no coincidence. In Tibet, we were allowed only one small suitcase. But our emotional baggage was heavy with old storylines: Jonathan’s history with women and mine, without men. Fortunately, we didn’t travel alone. Along with our local tourist guidebooks, the first items packed in my suitcase were my spiritual books, my companions and my teachers. The authors include the Buddhist nuns and monks Ayya Khema, Pema Chodron, Stephen Batchelor, Charlotte Jocko Beck, and Thich Nat Hanh, along with the other Buddhists I will cite. Pema Chodron, her teacher, Chogyam Trungpa, Stephen Batchelor, Master Sheng-en, Charlotte Jocko Beck, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Daisatz Suzuki belong to the Mahayana tradition. Ayya Khema, Christopher Titmus, and Venerable Henepa Gunaratama to the Theravada. 109 Their words are precious to me, and thus I will continue to quote them at length. 110 Although I frequently saw Jonathan as my problem, either a fiercesome antagonist or needy, demanding child, I eventually realized that we were co-protagonists. My drama queen solution to any unpleasant eruption was to leave, to run away and live alone (or in a forest or cave or the local airport or nearest seedy motel). He stayed, and talked, and talked. I had trouble facing the pain and holding my ground. He continued to repeat and rehearse it. I still have trouble hearing anything critical – taken as a paternal rebuke. When criticized, whether justly or unjustly, I feel the shame of abject failure. It is an intense, burning experience, I want to escape my skin, along with the situation and person. The friction, sometimes grating and often painful, is helping me to see myself both differently and accurately.
102 I still threaten, in emotionally intense moments, to leave. He tells me that my anger is “very scary,” that my face contorts into a frightening grimace. When his brows furrow, his eyes narrow into slits, and his skin becomes dark with frustrated rage, I can see myself. We mirror our anger. It’s not a pretty sight for either of us. Particularly for two people who see themselves as happy and kind, loving and tolerant. If he is hurt, he becomes aggressive; and he has remnants of the CEO or punishing patriarch; he can launch into a cold cross-examination that resembles a criminal trial. Or he can regress back to being a wounded child, abandoned by his mother, easily hurt and angry with angry women and me. Sometimes the “hurt” lasted three very long, depressed and arduous days. We called them his sinkers, which are fewer and shorter every year. He is unaware that the air turns dark and heavy with his pain, which is ages’ old. Often I would not have a clue about what I had said or done to trigger such a big response. Slowly I am coming to realize that I can have the delicacy of a Mack truck. And I am not as smart as I think I am. Jonathan is such an energetic masculine personality that it took me years to see, and then believe, his extreme fragility. He feels things intensely and deeply. I am learning to honor his feelings, to believe in their reality. And to accept responsibility for my triggering actions and apologize, rather than minimize or excuse them or inform him of their triviality. “They hurt him, they are not trivial, Pat,” repeats a frustrated Dr. Beebe. Ayya Khema described our collisions perfectly: “The defense and attack which happens on a large scale happens constantly with us personally. We’re constantly defending our self-image. If somebody does not appreciate or love us enough, or even blame us, that defense turns into an attack. The rationale is that we have to defend this person, ‘this country’ which is ‘me,’ in order to protect the inhabitant, ‘self.’ Because almost every person in the world does that, all nations act accordingly.” 111 Not to be grandiose, but like the War on Terror (and in Iraq) which continues to parallel the years of our relationship, we turned “defense into attack.” Our personal reactions to each other and the political actions leading to the invasion of Iraq overlapped. 112 In Vietnam, we feared the spread of Communism; in Iraq, it was terrorism in the US. Our defense became military invasions. Initially, neither Jonathan nor I had much awareness of the unintended, inadvertent, hurtful effect we could have on each other. Stephen Batchelor perfectly describes what we needed: “Awareness recognizes emotions but doesn’t condone or condemn them . . . Awareness notices without . . . repressing or expressing. It recognizes that just as hatred arises, so will it pass away . . . By identifying with it, we fuel it. The impulsive surge has such an abrupt momentum that by the time we first notice the anger, identification has already occurred . . . The task of awareness is to catch the impulse at its inception, to notice the very first hint of resentment coloring our feelings and perceptions. But such precision requires a focused mind.” 113 “To catch the impulse of anger at its inception” would become my goal and greatest achievement. If and when I could do this, the subsequent storyline of “poor me I
103 do everything for you and you are so mean to me” would not capture me. I would not identify with “poor me,” “I” was so much greater than that forlorn tale. And the wave would recede, quietly, and I could see and enjoy the reality of our life rather than wallow in the messy interior of my mind. Jonathan was less successful in avoiding the martyr trap, having a history of seeing himself as the aggrieved party. One trait would emerge as a central, sometimes upsetting, agent in our relationship – the need to be right. This quality was bone deep. It began with the story about Jonathan’s grandfather, who was dead when he was born, a tale I will repeat. The tragic tale was of a murder/suicide, discovered on microfilm as front-page news when Jonathan was twenty. His grandfather had lost majority ownership and control of the Milwaukee manufacturing company he had founded to a partner he had brought in as a financial officer; this former university business professor had taken additional shares during each refinancing, concealed in the fine print. It was legal, his grandfather had signed the documents, failing to pay attention. Thus, the courts were of no recourse as he tried to reclaim the company he had founded and once owned. But rather than accept this turn of events, he shot and killed his partner and then himself. This sense of justice, or of being wronged – what Dr. Ashok Bedi calls his “grandfather complex” -- would be passed on to Jonathan – who can turn everyday life into a courtroom drama where he plays the judge, prosecutor, and jury. It’s always over something that I think is small, insignificant, like who said what first, or did you have a bite or a few crumbs of brownie? I say something careless (“You’re always angry at me.” “Always? Always? Am I always angry?”), or offhand, or ironically honest, that hurts him, usually remarks that imply a judgment, and the fireworks begin. He feels stupid and attacks me, often by taking my language literally. I fight back, defending my feminist self, failing to realize that my insensitivity caused the tornado in the first place, that there is another way to act and react, a way that has compassion rather than veiled criticism at its core. For a woman who had a thin skin for criticism, I could be critical, often camouflaging my negative take in an intellectual argument, or burying my negative remark in a compliment, a double whammy, and frequently a sarcastic remark, often funny, yes, and cleverly ironic, but still wounding. Beneath all of the outer drama, particularly my Bette Davis outbursts, were my own deeply buried childish hurt and anger – which I am still coming to recognize. Rather than dealing with it, I just eliminated that part of my life, subsuming it into my indignation about the lower status of women in narrative cinema, there as sexual object or servant, subservient to men who controlled not only the gaze in cinema but the story as well. No man would ever control the Great Me, heaven forbid that he might be offering helpful observations and often help. I didn’t know how to receive, or how to actively listen, only to defend myself or jump to my own conclusions. I liked to cut to the chase, bypassing lengthy explication. Passive acts like listening and receiving help didn’t come easily or naturally for me. (Why? I already had all the answers I needed. And what did most men know about
104 women anyway?) But they are refreshing. Jonathan wanted to care for me. But I feared any strings. My initial refusal was feminism as deprivation I learned more about Jonathan – including his sometimes irritating traits like obsessive teasing. He knows the brat factor and persists even more intently when he knows something upsets me. It’s as if this elegant, intelligent man had momentary relapses back to 8 years old, reminiscent of Tom Hanks in Big. But I, too, could react with a five year old’s emotional immaturity, stamping my foot, crying in frustration, having a temper tantrum that could be loud and ugly. “No, you did.” “No, you did it first.” Pick, bicker, whine, sometimes yell, swear, and name call. How childish (and aggressive) could I get? When I see others fight, I recoil from the violence in their angry words and the distortion on their faces. I don’t want anger to take me over any longer. But I don’t want to repress it either. I did this for too long, burying it in shame. I want to acknowledge it and then let it recede. So I knew, early on, that this journey into a relationship would not always be smooth sailing and that I had much to learn. For you see, I hate being wrong and have a killer need to get in the last word. My ego doesn’t need to be right, but it just cannot be wrong. Neither can it remain silent in the face of injustice, particularly to me. Why? Being wrong is deeply embarrassing. This is where my shame becomes destructive – all I can imagine is that I will die if I don’t get out of this situation, or relationship, or place. Our explosions can be dramatic, even if they are all about nothing. It slowly dawned on me that Jonathan’s long stories, insistently and yes, sometimes endlessly, repeated, were, in fact, the groundwork for a lasting relationship, that he had endurance -- the ability to see an issue through to its conclusion. Eventually I would learn to listen. Pema Chodron describes how we use our emotions unwittingly -- And because the words of these writers are so perfect, so true, I directly quote rather than summarize passages; that way, anyone can forge his or her own interpretation; thus, I see these long quotes as gifts: “A simple feeling will arise, and instead of simply letting it be there, we panic. We begin to weave our thoughts into a story line, which gives rise to bigger emotions.” (69) We fan and inflame them. “So what began as an enormous open space becomes a forest fire, a world war, a tidal wave. We use our emotions . . . we take them and use them to regain our ground . . . We use them to try to make everything secure and predictable . . . We could just sit with the emotional energy and let it pass. There’s no particular need to spread blame and self-justification. Instead, we throw kerosene on the emotion so it will feel more real.” She urges us to see the “wildness of emotion,” and then befriend and soften them and ourselves, and other people. Awareness of “this silly thing” is the solution. “By becoming aware of how we do this silly thing again and again because we don’t want to dwell in the uncertainty and
105 awkwardness and pain of not knowing, we begin to develop true compassion for ourselves and everyone else” (70) 114 In The Places That Scare You, Chodron advises us to “let go of the story line when emotional distress arises, just abide with the energy beneath the storyline.” (28) “Most of us when we’re angry scream or act it out. We alternate expressions of rage with feeling ashamed of ourselves and wallowing in guilt. We become so stuck in repetitive behavior that we become experts at getting all worked up . . . we continue to strengthen our painful emotions . . . but wisdom is inherent in emotions . . . Anger without the fixation is clear-seeing wisdom. Pride without fixation is experienced as equanimity . . . we welcome the living energy of emotions. When our emotions intensify, what we usually feel is fear. This fear is always lurking in our lives. In sitting meditation we practice dropping whatever story we are telling ourselves and leaning into the emotions and the fear. Thus we train in opening the fearful heart to the restlessness of our own energy. We learn to abide with the experience of our emotional distress.” (29) Fear turns into wisdom when we can “welcome the energy of emotions” rather than act out an old story line. “The practice is always the same: instead of falling prey to a chain reaction of revenge or self-hatred, we gradually learn to catch the emotional reaction and drop the story lines . . . One way of doing this is to breathe it into our heart. By acknowledging the emotion, dropping whatever story we are telling ourselves about it, and feeling the energy of the moment, we cultivate compassion for ourselves . . . Then we can take this a step further . . . and recognize that there are millions who are feeling the way we are . . . the circle of compassion, which is where the magic is.” (33) I can use the energy beneath my self-pity and my fear of being boring and unattractive and rejected and unloved. As Chodron says, “These juicy emotional spots are where a warrior gains wisdom and compassion.” (34) But for this to happen, I have to be honest with myself, and I have to unearth qualities I have buried, or repressed, dragging them out of the camouflage in old sad stories and into conscious, immediate awareness. But I could only do this when the pain became extreme – and it took a male psychoanalyst and a male partner to create this amount of pain. For it was with men that my problems lay. “Pain is always a sign that we are holding on to something – usually ourselves. When we feel unhappy, when we feel inadequate, we get stingy; we hold on tight. Generosity is an activity that loosens us up.” “The essence of generosity is letting go.” (94) Letting go can be arduous, taking mighty effort. Simply saying, “You’re right, I’m wrong” can take great strength. “The essence of bravery is being without self-deception . . . Seeing ourselves clearly is initially uncomfortable and embarrassing . . . A Warrior begins to take responsibility for the direction of her life. It’s as if we are lugging around unnecessary baggage . . . Some things are no longer necessary.” (75) Of all the roles I have dreamt of playing, Warrior is the most thrilling and challenging.
High Drama in the Himalayas: On the Road in Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan
We met our group of twelve, and our Indian guide, Rahul, from Geographic Expeditions, in Hong Kong, in the lobby of the Peninsula Hotel. The flight to Tibet was noisy, packed with Chinese travelers. Outside the plane windows, the white peaks of the Himalayas were silent, spacious, unchanged by politics or history. For centuries these sacred heights had attracted meditators and adventurers. Meditators came on pilgrimages to explore their inner world just as mountaineers came on expeditions that challenged the limits of their outer world. I simply couldn’t believe I was going to Lhasa, to Tibet! For fifty years or more, this place had existed only in my dreams or at the movies. 1959, the year of the Chinese occupation and the Dalai Lama’s exile, was the year I graduated from Madison West High School, in Wisconsin. Our Chinese-owned hotel was once an upscale Holiday Inn, its glory days in the 1950s. Now the pool was empty, the convention rooms dark, deserted, and the décor, shabby moderne. With one exception in the breakfast room: a bold, wrap-around mural of the Himalayas in the style of 20th Century Soviet Realism. Nothing can diminish or impose itself on the grandeur of these mountains. The hotel was like the city of Lhasa – worn out from the Chinese occupation and overwhelmed by recent modernization. Outside, however, everything new and old is overshadowed by the dramatic, spectacular Potala, the former home of the Dalai Lama, 115 which sits commandingly, impressively, overwhelmingly on a hill above the flat city. The Potala, completed in 1694, is a huge palace of more than 1,000 rustic rooms of irregular shapes and ornately painted walls that presides over the entire city of Lhasa. This is where the Dalai Lamas lived and worked. Hundreds of monks used to live in this unique building, comprised of a Red Palace (for spiritual functions) and a White Palace (for political functions). Now there are around thirty-five monks. The Tibetan visitors wore their traditional, colorful clothing, quietly praying and bowing. Chinese tourists wore western clothes and talked. After a wrong turn in the tour, we had a quick glimpse of the past as the monks were sorting through old Tibetan books, leaflets in a wooden tablet, in a small tower room that was the library or archives. More visible was the present: the Chinese soldiers posted as guards, charging high prices to take photographs, and the energetic Chinese tourists laughing and taking photos. The magnificent structure is the goal of all Tibetans who make yearly pilgrimages after the harvest, often trekking hundreds of miles from their small farms. Then they walk, clockwise, around the base, carrying and twirling prayer wheels and prostrating themselves on the pavement, hundreds, even thousands, of times. Their pilgrimage can
107 take many days and is physically arduous. We saw old and wizened men and women, in traditional Tibetan woolen clothing, climbing hundreds of steep stairs, devoted to their mission and to this holy place – which contains not a single photograph of the Dalai Lama. This old, Tibetan architecture contrasted with the monumental style of Chinese architecture. The modernization continues in the new roads, dams, airports, and train routes, along with square, stern high rises and steel monuments. Tibetan folk culture crashes into Chinese modernity. The old city of Lhasa is built around the Jokhang, the most sacred temple in Tibet. It was built in the 7th century to house an image of the Buddha, a gift from a Chinese bride. (Many temples in Tibet contain images of historical llamas, but none of the Dalai Lama.) The Jokhang consists of many temples, dedicated to various holy figures, and central halls. The building is dark, musty, window-less, with the smell and light of burning yak butter candles. Walls are intricately painted, and peeling, telling stories of the Buddha and showing various llamas. One-hundred monks currently live here, chanting, meditating, and maintaining the rituals of the temple. Outside, surrounded by hundreds of small merchant stalls hawking their wares, pilgrims pay tribute by circumambulating, walking in clockwise direction, and bowing with each step. At the entrance to the temple is a long corridor of prayer wheels, which can be spun by crawling under them. This action sends the prayers inscribed inside the wheels out into the universe as blessings. Jonathan and I managed to scrunch our bodies into a low crouch and walk the entire length. This would be the first of hundreds of Buddhist monasteries and temples we would visit in the next three years. Drepung Monastery is outside Lhasa. Previous Dalai Lamas lived and were entombed here. Although crumbling, it is an active monastery, with red-robed monks studying the traditional texts and practicing their energetic style of philosophical debate in the courtyard. Jonathan, of course, wanted to be involved. And the fact that this was a private, scholarly exercise and that we had been allowed to quietly observe didn’t daunt him. So he casually and quietly moved into their arena and asked one of the monks to pose the most difficult question to his debating partner – all in gestures, which the young monks sweetly received and finally understood. After some intellectual struggle, the young student got the answer. Everyone clapped, breaking the intense concentration of the debate. Ganden Monastery is also in the steep hills some miles outside Lhasa. After being largely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, it was partially rebuilt and is the home of 400 monks. But it was a way station just off the steep dirt path on the way up that I remember: the small cave, around eight by eight feet, of two nuns who had lived there, meditating, for many years. By the time I reached the cave, Jonathan was already inside, sitting cross-legged on the floor, between the two beaming nuns, asking them for meditation tips. The cave was orderly, with two sleeping pallets, a wood burning stove, and a low wooden table. There were a few books in a nook in the dirt wall and a small
108 garden out front. Sparse would not describe the living conditions. But I felt such joy – as I always did when engaged with the monks in Tibet. For several years, I had been reading women’s spiritual auto/biographies. Two were tales of nuns living in Himalayan caves. Sorrow Mountain: The Journey of a Tibetan Warrior Nun 116) is the tale of Ani Pachen, a Tibetan. It describes her survival during the Chinese takeover in 1959, including her years as a female resistance leader, followed by twenty-one years of imprisonment and torture. She vividly describes walking around the Jokhang Temple during the protests in 1987 against the Chinese occupation. Along with the monks from Drepung Monastery, Ani marched around the Temple three times chanting “Chinese go home” and praising the Dalai Lama. In the police crackdown, over 1,000 protestors were arrested. (264-265) Her lifelong inspiration was her desire for the solitude of the spiritual life. As a little girl, she had been a novice monk. When she was released from prison, she went to Lhasa, where she stayed in a cave: “During those months, I existed in a state of abiding calm. No one to make me feel bothered, nothing to fear except the contents of my own mind. Food and drink were brought by those on pilgrimage.” But she still had a great deal of fear until her meeting with the Dalai Lama in India: “It was as if a radiant sun had shone through the darkness. All the years I’d suffered had not been in vain. I was finally free.” (278) .Cave in the Snow is the story of Diane Perry, who was born in London in 1943, during the bombing. 117 When she read her first Buddhist book, at 18, she knew that this was for her. She began practicing Theravadan Buddhism, the Southern School that existed in Sri Lanka Burma, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, (21) but this felt too cold for her. “She then read Nagarjuna, the second-century Buddhist saint and philosopher,” and the founder of Mahayana Buddhism, followed primarily in Tibet. (23) But in the 1960s, little was known about Tibetan Buddhism. “Unlike the chaste lines of Zen and the straight dogma of the Theravada, Tibetan Buddhism was seen as too exotic, too odd.”(24) She studied with Choygam Trungpa -- who had just come to England, and would go on to write many books, found meditation centers, and teach and train many disciples, including Pema Chodron, before, reportedly, becoming a bit too notorious for his organization to thrive. (29) Perry went to India, to a school for nuns, living in uncomfortable conditions. She met the Dalai Lama, early on, along with other Tibetan spiritual leaders. She found her Guru and was ordained a nun within three months. Yet, like Ayya Khema, she felt the discrimination that prevented women from some of the teachings, or being a lama and a core part of the lineage. Women were still viewed as the source of the man’s desire and hence as the problem. . In 1976, when she was thirty-three, she began a twelve year meditation in a remote cave, six feet by six feet, in the Himalayas. She ate once a day, at midday, the Buddhist tradition. (86) “She faced unimaginable cold, wild animals, near starvation and avalanches; she grew her own food and slept in a traditional wooden meditation box . . . her goal was to attain enlightenment as a woman.” (Back cover) When she came out, she
109 became involved with the issue of women within Buddhism, speaking at the conference in 1993 to the Dalai Lama. Images from these books play over the faces of the two nuns (and Jonathan) before me. The scene is still fresh, an indelible memory, a touch of the divine. It reminded me of an experience in Morocco. We were driving through the countryside in our rental car to Casablanca for our flight home. We were late, and racing. A tire burst. We pulled over. It was deeply silent. There was no sound or sight of human life – only a very old man, bent, in the distance plowing his field with his donkey. When Jonathan began to change the tire, the car jack snapped in two. We were stranded, in the middle of nowhere, two hours from Casablanca. We had not seen a house for miles. There was little traffic on the road. Silence, a slight breeze. Then, from out of this nowhere came a young man – who saw the broken jack and began to gather stones from the surrounding fences, piling them under the rear wheel. He was joined by a sheep herder and his flock of sheep, which circled the car. The young shepherd was carrying a black lamb that had just been born! I felt as if we were in a Fellini movie, or a romance fantasy novel. On our car radio, a chant led by Gurumayi played softly in the background. Then a black limousine stopped. The wealthy owner and his burly driver both got out and began to help with the tire changing. Two young girls in white organdy dresses got out of the back seat, and ran to see the newborn lamb. Within minutes, the tire was replaced, the sheep were herded on their way, the limo drove off, and the young man walked back into the mist that hung over the fields. We were stunned. What had happened? The only common language was that of two strangers in need. Morocco had taken gracious care of us. But back to Tibet. As if Lhasa were not exotic enough, political intrigue was added to our itinerary. Our airline tickets out of the country to Nepal were cancelled. Chinese dignitaries usurped our seats. At the earliest, it would be three days to a week before we could get out. Our guide decided on a rugged route through the Himalayas – in Toyota SUVs, leaving in the dark of night. It was a spectacular journey, on a steeply pitched, one lane dirt road through mountain peaks. If I had not been driving the hairpin roads leading into Sea Ranch, I would have been terrified. Although the landscape looked barren and brown, every inch was farmed, tilled and terraced; even the highest and smallest plots were hoed, readied for spring planting. There were small villages, yaks, sheep, and miles of brown/grey space, all dominated by the Himalayas. There were no trees, or bushes, for miles. The road followed the course of rivers, running to Nepal, the land becoming greener as we went. At several peaks, tall prayer flags sent out blessings. We stopped only to pee, men on one side of the deserted road, women on the other. The terrain became greener, and the rivers faster. As we came close to the Nepalese border, there were burly trucks on the road, increasing in number. We left our cars and guides, and walked across a long bridge and through an ominous official military checkpoint. The setting was right out of a 1940s Hollywood thriller -- an international border town, packed with animals and people of all colors and costumes, carrying their possessions and papers. The area was congested with traffic, trucks unloading commercial merchandise. It took two hours or more to pass through; I felt like
110 a secret agent. That night we stayed at a border hotel – a seedy place where the bed coverings gave me the creeps. The intrigue intensified. During the dark and cold dinner that night, we learned that British tourists had just been kidnapped nearby, by Nepalese rebels, Mao loyalists. Traveling by car to Kathmandu was deemed too dangerous. So early the next morning, at a deserted building site, cheered on by hundreds of excited Nepalese children, we were helicoptered to the Yak and Yeti, a five star hotel, in Kathmandu. The flight was magnificent, revealing green terraced hillsides, using every available inch of Nepalese land. Again, it was hard to believe that I was in Kathmandu – with its dense throngs and noisy big city life. And then in Bhaktapur, an ancient and preserved city ten miles away. Hindu deities adorned many buildings – as did Buddhist icons adorn others. And the central market, Durbar Square, was bustling with street merchants and beggars. Negotiating with vendors was a game Jonathan loved – and he was wily as well as friendly. To stop the incessant demands by grasping young girls selling cloth bags, Jonathan bargained for twenty bags and then offered to sell them back to the next onslaught of girl hawkers. At a local art shop/gallery of traditional paintings, Jonathan spent two leisurely hours angling back and forth for a Buddhist thanka, 48”x 48”. It is a splendid, intricate piece that greets us every morning in our condominium in Menlo Park. As do wooden book tablets and prayer wheels from Tibet, and calligraphic paintings from Morocco. The Buddhist mountain kingdom of Bhutan was bucolic, a country preserved in time and served only by Bhutan’s air line, Druk Air, which had two large planes. The flights from Kathmandu have extraordinary views of the most spectacular Himalayan peaks, including Everest. One must either enter or leave Bhutan by air, on one of Bhutan’s two jets – a rule of the strictly regulated tourist trade. Situated between India and China, in the Himalayas, Bhutan has a population of only 650,000. 80% of the population is agricultural . . . “Religion, tradition, and ancestral custom” are the core principles of this pastoral country, its laws and etiquette. Animals wander on the neat roads, often dirt, lined with deep green grass. Stupas, beautiful chortens or temples, are everywhere. Monasteries are peopled by hundreds of monks. “There are no beggars, no violent crime, and few thefts.” 118 All the architecture is in the colorful traditional style of wood, which resembles Swiss Chalets, with painted, colorful window frames. It’s a bit like Disneyland on a grand rural, national scale. The internet and national television came in 1999 and the income tax in 2001. The national religion is Buddhist. “Bhutan is the only country in the world to have adopted Mahayana Buddhism . . . as its official religion.” (92) Everyone wore the national costume: women in long, similarly patterned, hand-woven skirts, blouses, and jackets, and the men in coats that resembled bathrobes, with knee socks. This was the legally mandated garb in this Buddhist kingdom that was largely rural, green, unpolluted by industry or commerce or, so far, tourism, which is carefully regulated. “Tourists are charged a daily rate (then $200. per day) and must visit the country in groups of at least
111 three,” orchestrated by only a few tourist organizations. It will increase with the first class hotels and resorts which were being built when we were there. The entire country was so quiet, so unspoiled, so spare and pure and natural, it was as if it had missed the 20th century completely. Perhaps the 19th, as well, with its industrial, urban density completely absent in Bhutan. Bhutanese art came from Tibetan art. “It is religious, it is anonymous, and hence, it has no aesthetic function by itself.” (75) There is little distinction between art and craft. The makers of both are anonymous. And there is no competitive pricing; demand is known and therefore stable and the labor to make them is limited. Fabrics are hand-woven and paper is handmade. Despite the national tranquility and serenity, my first night in the hotel in Thimphu in the Paro Valley was very noisy and chaotic. I had a meltdown during dinner with our group. It is still a cringe to remember it. First, a bit of background. Our small group consisted mainly of older couples and two single women. Three travelers were from Arkansas and knew Bill and Hillary Clinton and other protagonists in the longrunning Monica Lewinsky investigation. Of course, Jonathan was fascinated, as he always is by trials and prisons. (He would attend the Enron trial in Texas and get to know Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling and other players in this drama, as well as the Scott Peterson murder trial, which was in Redwood City, California, near our condo.) Dinner was served at a long table, banquet style. Jonathan sat between me and the younger Kathy, a flirtatious, slim, attractive real estate agent, married to an older businessman from Little Rock. Turning his shoulder to me (albeit slightly), he conversed with bubbly, perky Kathy the entire meal, listening with rapt attention to her tales of the Clinton saga in Little Rock. I felt excluded, separate, embarrassed. I became furiously jealous and left the table before dessert, obviously angry. Jonathan followed. And so did a huge argument. The hurt and fear I felt overwhelmed me. I was terrified. Where did such pain come from? The magnitude of my negative emotions erased any tranquility in Bhutan. For hours, I was caught in my suspicious, clanging mind, oblivious to the natural beauty that surrounded me. Even our room, with its magnificent views of a green valley and hazy mountains, seemed dingy, ugly. But it was my jealousy that was ugly, not the spectacular countryside of Bhutan. Writing about anger, Ayya Khema put it very simply: “Anger arises because one feels hurt. Pain has arisen and the absurd human reaction, the natural instinctive one, is to inflict pain too. Unless we become aware of that, we can’t change it.” If we reciprocate, rather than eliminate the pain, “we simply create double pain . . . another absurd human folly.” (65) Rather than just letting the pain sit and then subside within me, I reciprocated by storming off and then inflicting my verbal anger on Jonathan, blaming him. I created what Khema calls “double pain, an absurd human folly.” 119 “The Buddha compared anger with picking up hot coals with one’s bare hands and trying to throw them at the person with whom one is angry. Who gets burned first? The one who is angry of course.” My upset destroyed my evening, literally, a once in a
112 lifetime experience in Paro, Bhutan, ruined by my reaction. For me, this awareness is key. The majority of the pain I experienced came from within me. It wasn’t Jonathan’s action that caused the intensity of my pain. It was my reaction, my acting out, my reciprocation. “All problems are created by our own reactions and we have the natural tendency, another of our absurdities, to blame the trigger. We get angry and blame the person, or we blame the event . . . but we forget that we have the tendency inside us waiting to be triggered. It could never happen otherwise.” (69) The “tendency,” my fear of rejection, my deep insecurity, was within me. My anger happened because of that, not Kathy or Jonathan. Khema goes on. “When one is angry, mindfulness is lost . . . If anyone ever had time to look in a mirror when they were angry, they’d be surprised at the kind of face they would see.” (66) Jonathan would often tell me about the distinct, fierce, cramped expression on my face when I was angry. I had no awareness that even my physical appearance was altered by anger. Transforming Problems into Happiness, the title of a book by Lama Zola Riposte, says it all. For this is what we, Jonathan and I, have been able to achieve, happiness, most of the time. 120 “The antidote to anger is patience. Each angry thought must be countered with a patient thought, for the angry thought itself cannot recollect the drawbacks of anger . . . The pain of anger is like burning red-hot coals in your heart. Anger transforms even a beautiful person into something dark, ugly, and terrifying . . . as soon as anger stops, even your appearance suddenly changes. (23) As with anger, “as long as you cling to and follow desire, there can be no lasting happiness or peace in your heart . . . Something big is always missing. Your life is always empty. In reality, having the object of your desire and not having it are by nature suffering.” (24/25) Having this relationship would be very painful if I clung to Jonathan, if I feared losing him to another woman. The solution: “Transforming miserable conditions into necessary conditions that help us move along the path to enlightenment.” (32) “Whenever a problem arises, you can be happy by recognizing it as beneficial. Rejoice each time you meet an obstacle.” (34) Which sounded exactly like Dr. Bedi, who did our “rejoicing” for us. The obstacles I met in this relationship could be a cause for celebration rather than depression? There’s a thought. . . But I shouldn’t repress them, I should acknowledge them. In Anger, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, says that “happiness is not an individual matter. If one of you is not happy, it will be impossible for the other person to be happy.” 121 We have to let the other “know when you suffer, when you are angry with him or her. You have to express what you feel. You have the right. This is true love. . . . Try your best to say it peacefully. Don’t say something to punish or blame . . . This is the language of love . . . When you are happy, share your happiness. When you suffer, tell your beloved one about your suffering . . . Use loving speech. This is the
113 only condition. You must do this as soon as possible. You should not keep your anger, your suffering to yourself for more than twenty-four hours. Otherwise, it becomes too much. It can poison you . . . Twenty-four hours is the deadline.” (56/57) I would angrily relay my anger, forgetting to use “loving speech,” which changes everything. My acted out anger, my aggressive reaction, intensified by my storyline, has a childish immaturity about it that addressed one of my character defects – impatience. “We want things our own way now. When it doesn’t happen, an impatient person becomes angry. It’s a vicious circle of impatience and anger.” (Khema, Being Nobody Going Nowhere, 144) One solution is to be patient with ourselves. “If not, we will be impatient with others’ deficiencies, we do not appreciate ourselves or others.” (145) If I had been patient during the dinner, rather than dramatically racing off, “not appreciating ourselves or others,” the interlude would not have exploded into a scene. On a general level, Ayya Khema analyzed the destructive quality of negative emotions. “When we get upset, angry, worried, fearful, envious, jealous, and greedy . . . there is no security to be found. We’re not reliable . . . and we have no self-confidence. Only when the emotions are brought under control and there is a feeling of security inside oneself that no matter what happens the reaction is going to be mild and equitable, then one feels self-assured.” (84) I love the idea that “security” is to be found within me, a security and self-assurance that has little to do with who or what are around me. Cultivating patience, along with “loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity” are Buddhist solutions for anger and jealousy. As Khema says, “joy with others is a sure antidote for depression.” The result: not just smoother relations with others, but self-confidence, self-assurance, all missing in anger, jealousy, envy, greed, and fear. Gaining control of (or better, befriending and taming) my wild emotions was (and is) no small task for me. I truly believed that if emotions were ignited, it was inevitable that they would play out. If I didn’t react strongly to others,’ particularly men’s, behavior I deemed “disrespectful,” then I would be a wimp, a weak woman. I needed to talk back, to speak up, to defend myself. I was on defensive guard, ever alert for a slight. Yes, I was dramatic to hysterical, a Joan Crawford wannabe, but it was not my fault. I was innocent, merely protecting myself in order not to be a victim. I took no responsibility for my reactions. I blamed Jonathan, and then my father, and then social structures. Not only was I emotionally challenged, but I had a limited concept of love. Although I had learned another, more expansive and generous model in Siddha Yoga, I had not yet put it into practice with a partner. I had changed my mind but not my experience – and there is a big difference between the two. I had the words but not the reality. Ayya Khema warned about the danger of words: We can believe that because we have read, or said, the words, “we’ve actually done it.” But “one hasn’t changed oneself yet.” (73) The words are only a landmark, a street sign. It takes great work to turn them into reality. It took me several years, and then some, of daily effort
114 For Khema, if we are attached to people, “that attachment creates hate, not towards the people we are attached to, but towards the idea that they might be lost. There is fear and we can only fear what we hate. Therefore the purity of love is lost. The attachment makes it impure and thus less satisfying. No total fulfillment can be found.” (37) “Love without attachment is the only kind of love that has no fear in it and is therefore pure. Love with attachment is a fetter. It consists of waves of emotion and usually creates invisible iron bands. Real love is love without clinging, it’s giving without expectation, it’s standing next to rather than leaning on.” (140) I wanted to stand beside a partner, I wanted to love without fear, what Khema calls “pure love,” love “without clinging.” To do this, I needed to believe that “everything happens for the best,” and that I would be cared for, no matter what would happen in the future. The best way to discover “pure love” is to focus on being loving rather than being As Khema revealed, “Most people are looking for someone to love them. That loved. someone loves us doesn’t mean that we are loving. The other person is feeling the love. We don’t feel a thing. All we feel is gratification that somebody has found us lovable. That makes the ego bigger. But loving others goes in the direction of making the ego smaller. The more love we can extend, the more people we can include in it, and the more love we have.” (41) Extending what Buddhists call loving kindness can not only assuage the negative emotions, including attachment, but it makes the ego smaller. And a big ego is the repository of fear, a place of loneliness, not love.
115 CHAPTER 9:
Southeast Asia: The Silence of History
In April 2004, close to the Asian New Year, we were in Vietnam, at the beginning of six intense and lovely weeks in five countries in Southeast Asia. Never did I imagine that I would be in Vietnam, yet something feels eerily familiar, as if I were haunted. I remember so many of the cities’ names, scenes of famous battles, from the nightly TV news in the 1970s. I can hear Walter Cronkite or Chet Huntley saying “Danang” or “Haiphon.” (During this same period now thirty years ago, my disillusionment and restlessness with marriage increased to such a pitch that I got divorced and began the adventure of being a single parent and becoming what was then called a “liberated woman.” [Marriage became a “no-never” for me.] “Liberation” was also at stake in the Vietnam War.) This time, I am seeing the countries caught up in that war with my own eyes, not through media words and images. And I am beginning to feel and to think very differently about marriage, relationships, to say nothing about the meaning of “liberation.” This personal view is very different. Rather than an enemy, a violent aggressor, I see a peaceful people, small in stature yet vastly ambitious, savvy in business. Cold War paranoia is what we shared from afar. The fear that drove the war in Vietnam is, in retrospect, incomprehensible. Although it is changing rapidly, Vietnam is still largely rural, a green land of rice paddies, oxen, small villages and farms that we massively bombed and poisoned. The domino theory in Vietnam makes as much sense as the war in Iraq – excuses for military actions in the name of security and protection. I am realizing that my life has been framed by four wars, events that linger and overlap in later decades. As I wrote in an initial and discarded first chapter, “I had just started walking when WW II began in 1941. I have memories of scarcity, of looking up and waiting in long ration lines for eggs and sugar. I remember the preciousness of money, of a fifty-cent coin. Then came my parents’ post-war move to the suburbs, and 1950s upward mobility – a domestic consumer surge fueled by Cold War paranoia, nuclear fear, and double standards.” The Cold War inculcated a fear of the dark and night as I imagined the sound of every plane’s engine as “Russians” bombing the US. The second war was in Korea. “I loved (and later wrote about) Lucy in the 1950s and remember (and later wrote about) where I was when Kennedy was shot in the 1960s.” My third war was the Vietnam War. “The anti-war and women’s liberation movements in the 1970s changed the course of my intellectual and personal life.”
116 “Since 9/11, 2001, my history has been refiguring itself. The Wars in Iraq, my fourth war, and the 2004 presidential election replayed Vietnam; the attack on the World Trade Center, remembering the Kennedy assassination, has unleashed a war on terror driven by fear and paranoia, similar to the Cold War. Like the 1950s, homes have become the focal point of the economy – paradoxically serving as both the equity for, and the repository of, consumer durables. The student youth movement of the late 1960s and 1970s has morphed into an obsession with being and looking young.” Traveling to Southeast Asia intersects with this past – and in many ways, the countries are suspended in this time period. Development was halted forty years ago, and is only beginning to resume again. Recently open to trade and tourism, the communist regimes are still in power, yet changing with prosperity and mini versions of market economies. Hanoi! I could hardly believe it. I can still see images of Jane Fonda from grainy film clips during her controversial visit to North Vietnam. French colonial architecture and design survived the U.S. bombing. Our hotel, the graceful, lovely Metropole, is a restored French building. We would repeat this elegant turn of the century experience in Cambodia, in Phnom Penh at the Hotel Le Royal and the Grand Hotel D’Angkor in Siem Reap. I love Hanoi! which is the heart of a burgeoning art scene, galleries springing up all over the city. Several large oil paintings will journey to Sea Ranch, carefully packed in hand-made wooden crates. 123 Although bustling, there is a pastoral quality about the city; in the middle is a lake (Hoan Kiem Lake), a place of quiet, peaceful tranquility. Early in the morning hundreds of Vietnamese slowly and gracefully performed Tai Chi in the park. There are few automobiles on the streets. Instead, thousands of bicycles and motorbikes swarm around the city square and streets, in choreographed patterns and lines. At the Temple of Literature, the first national university, constructed in 1076, the names of great teachers were engraved on stone tablets, along with “laureates” who went on to become famous scholars. The university was dedicated to Confucius, a revered teacher and politician. I felt connected to this culturally important site that honors scholars and education. The most astonishing moment was standing in Ho Chi Minh Square (Ba Dinh Square), a vast expanse of open space. With its huge, towering mausoleum, in the monumental Chinese style, it is an experience of power and awe – particularly when compared to the simplicity and silence of Ho Chi Minh’s residence. His traditional Vietnamese house was built of wood; it is small, spare, with two stories and porches open to the outdoors. There is little furniture. It is simplicity itself. He chose not to live in the palace of the French Governor which had been built in 1906, preferring a more modest place, built in 1958 on the grounds of what is now the Presidential Palace. Standing in Ho Chi Minh’s home, I can feel the air and sun and hear the wind. This tranquility and humility is in contrast to old media images of Hanoi.
117 Standing in Hoa Lo Prison -- where U.S. soldiers including Senator John McCain and Pete Petersen, formerly U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam and our companion/educator on this trip, were held captive for years -- was an intense experience. We all imagined the scenario in this dark, cramped space, and realized that few of us would have been able to endure. Hoa Lo was a French prison, built in 1896, and the largest of a network of prisons built to counteract anti-colonialism. During this time, many leaders of the Vietnamese revolutionary movement were imprisoned. From August 1964 until March 1973, “it was used to detain American pilots whose aircraft had been shot down over Hanoi whilst bombing or attacking the North Vietnamese people. It was during this period that the Americans gave Hoa Lo the nickname ‘Hanoi Hilton.’” Only 1/3 of the prison remains, the rest demolished in 1993 for a high rise, modern hotel. What remains is now a memorial “to the revolutionaries incarcerated here who gave their lives for their country.” The different occupants portray very different memories, dependent on point of view. CEO arranged spectacular side trips from Hanoi: to the Mekong River, Ha Long Bay, and China Beach. Ha Long Bay, “with more than 1600 limestone formations, caves and grottoes” is a place of magical fantasy. The fanciful bay is populated by fisher people who live on flat boats that are moored in the deep water, a mobile community that included floating restaurants and stores. Ha Long Bay is two hours from the industrial city of Hai Phong, the setting for an historical drama when the U.S. bombed the harbor. I felt as if I were familiar with Hai Phong, almost as if I had been there. But it looked nothing like I imagined. The city was booming with industry and new construction. Signs of the war were not only in my memory. Da Nang, a key port in Central Vietnam, still has bomb craters, turned into fishponds, in the middle of their rice paddies. Da Nang was a major U.S. Marine base and the setting for fierce fighting when it fell to “the Communists” in 1975. Today, because it is close to miles of sandy ocean beaches, it is a portal for tourism, development mapped out by new roads, building sites, and a few commercial buildings, empty, waiting for business tenants. The plots have been prepared, awkwardly awaiting the tourist influx. We stayed at the German owned Furama Resort, a luxurious enclave just down the beach from China Beach, the setting for a former U.S. military hospital and television series. The beach is vast, beautiful, almost empty, with only a few tourists. . Why couldn’t I call Saigon by its new name, Ho Chi Minh City? Because Saigon was a name that had permanently etched itself in my brain. As we learned from our many Vietnamese guides, the difference between South and North Vietnam is still operative in personal histories, although the North officially forgave South Vietnamese after the war if they confessed. Saigon is busier, noisier, more commercial than Hanoi. The hotels are glitzier, as are the shopping districts. The place that houses the war history museum is almost ramshackle, concealed on a side street, with virtually no signage. The American War Museum, or The War Remnants Museum, is a jumble of temporary buildings that tell the war story through photographs and captions. It is a profound documentation. The plastic coatings on the
118 photos are dulled, the edges of the paper frayed, but the statistics of Agent Orange, the brief stories of massacres, and the extraordinary force of the photos reveal a harsh truth – the US was a brutal aggressor. Outside, among the five small exhibit buildings, parked tour buses are interspersed with massive U.S. tanks, flamethrowers, fighter planes, huge B 52 bombs, and artillery, along with tiger cages for torturing captured Viet Cong. Even on such a hot humid day, the little buildings are packed. But there is little noise. The silence of terrible actions is heavy. The small brochure begins with a quote by Robert McNamara: “Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.” 124 The statistics it marshals are brutal: “543,000 soldiers, 7,850,000 tons of bombs, 75,000,000 liters of defoliants sprayed over the country. Nearly 3 million Vietnamese were killed, and 4 million others injured. Over 58,000 American army men died in the war . . . human beings will not tolerate such a disaster happening again, neither in Vietnam nor anywhere on the planet.” The most brutal photographs starkly show bodies burned black by napalm, or men being thrown from flying helicopters, or a bombed hospital, and color photos of the massacre at “Son My” (My Lai) village. 504 people were killed.” 125 During the war, Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, toured the U.S. for peace 126 Born in Central Vietnam, he entered the Buddhist monastery when he was sixteen, a few miles from Hue. (3) 127 After his ordination in 1949, he moved to Saigon. “A younger generation of Buddhist monks was eager for Buddhism to emerge from its ivory tower and to become engaged with social realities.” (4) He had seen the French occupation, the Japanese in WW II, and then in 1954, the division into the communist north and the capitalist south. In 1962, he accepted a fellowship at Princeton University to teach Buddhist studies. His first book, A Rose for Your Pocket, was “an encouragement” to “enjoy the most simple and beautiful things in life.” (7) In 1963, he taught at Columbia, and by then “the oppressive measures of the Diem regime in South Vietnam had become intolerable. Buddhists were prohibited from displaying the Buddhist flag . . . Electricity and water to the most important Buddhist temples in Saigon were cut off . . . A prominent Buddhist monk, Master Quang Duc, publicly immolated himself as a silent protest. Thich Nhat Hanh worked hard to make these events in Vietnam known and understood by the American public.” The Diem regime fell and Nhat Hanh returned to Saigon, founding “the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam.” (7) It had a social and educational mission to improve the villages, and a way of teaching that did not impose itself on traditional practices. It was a philosophy of wisdom plus social action, embodied in a unified Buddhist endeavor/community that went beyond its monastic domains and various origins. Thich Nhat Hanh refused to take sides in the War, yet along with his Buddhist colleagues, many of whom were killed, he lived in danger of assassination. In 1966, he toured the US to appeal for peace, meeting with U.S. Senators who opposed the War, as well as with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Martin Luther King, who would nominate
119 him for the Nobel Peace Prize. (9) After this visit, the South Vietnamese government refused him permission to return. He became an exile. (10) In 1969, he created a Buddhist Peace Delegation in Paris, the site of ongoing peace talks between North Vietnam and the US. After the end of the war, in 1975, Nhat Hanh was not welcome in Vietnam. The Unified Buddhist Church was outlawed. Its monks were imprisoned. (11) His life was in danger as he continued to write the history of Vietnamese Buddhism and traveled the world working for refugee relief and aid. In 1982, he established Plum Village, in France, a rural community for refugees of all sorts. Many of our local guides in Vietnam knew his writings and practiced his teachings. They spoke of him with great reverence, surprised that an American, at an event sponsored by CEO, capitalism par excellence, would be familiar with his work. Sister Annabel Laity, the author of the “Introduction,” describes working with him on a printing project for the Plum Village Newsletter. Fired up and ready to go, she arrived for work and was surprised when he suggested tea. Then a long walk in the countryside. Finally the printing began, on the slow speed of the press, which he preferred. Sister Laity concludes: “I was surprised at the end of the day when he told me that we had almost finished.” This was a “very important lesson. You feel that you are living in eternity and there are no deadlines. In spite of this Thay [Teacher] accomplished a great deal in terms of writing, teaching, gardening, and designing. Whatever he does, he does with zeal and application so that it is more like interesting play than toil.” (16) I long to meet Thich Nhat Hanh before I die. I studied other writers in the Mahayana tradition, which flourished in variant forms in China, Korea, Japan, Nepal, Tibet and Vietnam. “Bodhidharma was an Indian Buddhist monk who brought Buddhism to China in 475 A.D. -- Buddhism inflected with meditation techniques from Indian yoga. Ch’an Buddhism spread from China and “was called Zen in Japan, Son in Korea, and Thien in Vietnam.” (Master Shen-yen, 16) 128 In the Ch’an or Thien tradition, “the ultimate truth is sometimes compared to the moon, and the conventional truth to a finger pointing at the moon. Someone seeing the moon points in order to show it to people who haven’t seen it yet. If they look at the finger, not the moon, they are not getting it. The finger is not the moon. Words, language, ideas, and concepts are like the finger; they can express only the secondary truth, but they can point to the ultimate truth . . . this is something everyone must experience personally. It can never be described.” (21) This author, Master Sheng-yen, became a monk near Shanghai when he was 13. He fled to Taiwan and later earned a doctorate in Buddhist literature in Tokyo. He founded a Ch’an Meditation Center in New York. He provided a perfect take on the nature of “problems“-- being of our own making. “Buddha saw that it was more important to save the mind than the body . . . If our mental problems are illusions and are cured, that is liberation.” (38) Buddhism believes that “there are no problems that exist objectively per se. Problems have to exist
120 in your own mind and perception. When there are no problems in your mind, objective problems do not exist . . . that everything is created by our minds is not easy to grasp.” (Master Sheng-yen, 38) The Western belief in a reality, out there, a reality that exists in tandem with our senses, our perception, and a reality that is the cause of our suffering is a far cry from this belief that problems are created by and exist in our own minds. Unlike psychoanalysis, Buddhism “is not concerned with the causality of a person’s delusion and suffering. It is concerned only with their recognition and elimination . . . the power to do that is within the mind of the individual.” (42) We can change our lives by changing our thoughts. One simple step concerns eliminating dualities: “If you don’t desire the pleasant, or repulse the unpleasant, your mind will naturally become focused.” (69) “To cultivate Ch’an is to transform ourselves, not the environment. Once we are transformed, the environment will also have transformed, and we can positively influence everyone we come in contact with.” It is such a simple truth: transform myself and my world will change. Stephen Batchelor is a “former monk in both the Zen and Tibetan traditions, associated with a nondenominational Buddhist community in England.” Born in Scotland and educated in Buddhist monasteries in India, Switzerland, and Korea,” his writings on Buddhism are beautiful and for me, insightful. On distraction: “Distraction is a state of unawareness.” (24) “Distraction is . . . an escape from awe to worry and plans.” (32) Most of the time “we are reliving an edited version of the past, planning an uncertain future, or indulging in being elsewhere . . . Who ‘I am’ appears coherent only because of the monologue we keep repeating, editing, censoring, and embellishing in our heads.” (24) Later on (82), he asks: “So what are we but the story we keep repeating, editing, censoring, and embellishing in our heads?” “We flee from the pulse of the present to a fantasy world. . . This craving to be otherwise, to be elsewhere, permeates the body, feelings, perceptions, will – consciousness itself.” (25) “Anguish emerges from craving for life to be other than it is.” (25) I think about my many cravings over the years to be elsewhere and otherwise . . . teaching at a different, or better, university; living in another state; finding a bigger, better house; receiving more speaking offers and achieving greater fame, and earlier, having wealthier parents, a more successful husband, all cravings for status and money. The cravings I have today are much simpler – chocolate, ice cream, a new pair of jeans, and, oh yes, a house with a better view of the ocean. But I anticipate that with the exception of chocolate, the others will soon leave me. For I truly love my life today. And I am beginning to see the light at the end of my tunnel vision: As Batchelor points out, within Indian tradition, “the aim of life is to attain freedom from the anguished cycle of compulsive rebirth. (It’s a curious twist that Westerners find the idea of rebirth consoling.)” (35) Once again, I am seeking liberation – from the worries and problems created in my mind. Batchelor advises us to have friends who are “skilled in the art of learning from every situation.” One of these friends is my traveling companion, my partner, Jonathan who has a skill for learning from and adapting to situations. “We do not seek perfection
121 in these friends but rather heartfelt acceptance of human imperfection.” For so many years, I found others, particularly my dates, wanting, imperfect. Rather than acceptance, I felt critical, intolerant. But this has changed to “heartfelt acceptance of human imperfection.” We are human, after all, therefore imperfect, a perfectly acceptable reality. Batchelor goes on to elaborate that these friends have been taught by others, “through a series of friendships that stretches back through history – ultimately to Gautama [Buddha] himself.” (Dharma practice, 51). I think of Gurumayi, the Siddha Yoga Swamis, all the teachers I have met in Siddha Yoga. Along with my little meditation community of good friends in Sea Ranch who practice all manner of meditation. For myself, now, I don’t search for “omniscience but an ironic admission of ignorance.” (50) I no longer care whether I have an answer. On the contrary, I love not knowing, because a whole realm of knowledge awaits me. “The questioning that emerges from unknowing differs from conventional inquiry in that it has no interest in finding an answer . . . The deeper we penetrate a mystery, the more mysterious it becomes . . . This perplexed questioning is the central path itself . . . Fired with intensity, but free from turbulence and the compulsion for answers, questioning is content just to let things be. There is not even a hidden agenda at work behind the scenes.” (98) My not very hidden agenda used to be egotistic – to demonstrate my brilliance, my superiority, and other’s incorrectness. (I am embarrassed to admit that I thought no one else knew this, that I had concealed my false pride and arrogance, as well as other imperfections.) As a paradoxical result, I always came up short in my own estimation; I had severe bouts of intellectual insecurity and personal inadequacy. But there is another way to seek knowledge, finding wisdom instead of answers: “To dwell in unknowing perplexity before the breath, the rain . . . we are poised in a still vital alertness on the threshold of creation . . . waiting for something to emerge that has never happened in quite that way before and will never happen in quite that way again.” (101) I want to be “poised in a still vital alertness” to the rest of my life. I want to be “fired with intensity, but free from turbulence and the compulsion for answers.” I want to be “content to just let things be.” “Such a person values lightness of touch, flexibility and adaptability, a sense of humor and adventure, appreciation of other viewpoints, a celebration of difference.” (105) This is exactly the person I want to be. For Batchelor, like Thich Nhat Hanh and others, Buddhism must live in the world, not be confined to arcane monastic practices. He finds an aesthetic sensibility in Buddhism’s core principles. “Awareness is also an experience of beauty, beauty in nature and in art.” “Great works of art” portray “the pathos of anguish and a vision of its resolution . . . They accept anguish without being overwhelmed by it. They reveal anguish as that which gives beauty its dignity and depth. The four ennobling truths of the Buddha provide . . . a template for aesthetic vision.” (105) What a magnificent description of great theater and cinema.
122 “Our life is a story being continuously related to others through every detail of our being.” (106) I was beginning to enjoy the story of my life, with “flexibility and adaptability, a sense of humor and adventure, appreciation of other viewpoints,” particularly Jonathan’s, which was not always complimentary. On this Asian Odyssey, I felt intense compassion for the suffering these countries had endured; and I felt great admiration for what they were achieving. I think the commitment to Buddhism had much to do with survival and with “accepting anguish without being overwhelmed by it.” I felt a oneness with each culture, realizing all the time that my five feet and eight inches, my streaked blonde hair, and white skin made me look “other,” foreign. I knew we shared one thing – a reverence for Buddhist culture and practices, and that one thing united us. We left Saigon and flew to Cambodia, its bloodbath killing fields and Khmer Rouge torture prison, S21, in Phnom Penh, and its monumental Hindu and Buddhist temple ruins in Angkor and Siem Reap. The banality of evil is stifling, terrifying, both overwhelming and incomprehensible. 1.7 million Cambodians were killed by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. This immensity is beyond comprehension, on historical scale that can barely be imagined. Immensity also describes the magnificence of the temple ruins in Angkor Wat, a temple, and Angkor Thom -- a 9th century city abandoned to the jungle and an earlier war with the Thais, stone fortresses undone by mammoth tree roots, monsoons, and intense heat. All these remnants of God and then of violent history are silent. The places are empty of life except for tourists and quiet with death. War and revolution killed even the jungle animals in Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat. Outside Phnom Penh, we are the only tourists at the killing fields – the recently excavated gravesite of 20,000 bodies – accessible by a badly pocked dirt road and newly marked by a tall white marble monument filled with skulls in glass cases. A gaggle of young children surrounded Jonathan, hands outstretched for money, which he humorously provided. In the city, the horror is made personal in the individual photographs of the numbered, tortured prisoners on exhibit in the school turned infamous prison, S21, nondescript except for the barbed wire surrounding it. The jailers kept meticulous records, photographing the prisoners upon arrival and after their tortures. The pick axes used to maim and kill are rusted, ordinary, almost small. But if you close your eyes, the atrocity is palpable. We read books in an attempt to understand the forced evacuation by the Khmer Rouge of Phnom Penh in 1975. Our guide, Suk Lang, a 45 year old woman who lived it, explained it best to us. After they captured the city from the army, the Khmer Rouge rebels told the citizens that the Americans were going to bomb – as they had invaded and bombed other cities in Cambodia in the 1970s. They promised that everyone could return to their homes in three days. Thus began the forced march of an entire populace into the rice fields and communes of the country – a three-year nightmare of separation that didn’t end when another Communist regime, the Vietnamese, occupied the country from 1979 - 1989. When Suk Lang returned, her family house was gone. Two of her brothers died from starvation and overwork.
123 Like the major cities of Vietnam, the French colonial style and culture lie beneath the teaming streets of shopkeepers and beggars. But the splendor, the marks of economic exploitation, has faded, decayed. Cambodia is very poor, ragged, darkly sad about the past and quietly wary about the future. You can see something like pain in the eyes of the tour guides who very carefully tell their personal stories, which make up the country’s history – the tragedy of war, of liberation gone mad, of freedom not yet gained. Vietnam, a communist country, has been open for only a decade, Cambodia, a repressive mix of the military and the monarchy, a few years less. Already the tourist attractions, particularly luxury hotels but also the glittering luxury designer stores like Louis Vuitton and Cartier, are refiguring the cities and crowding the landscape. Young men and women are migrating from the rice fields to the cities for work. Mom and Pop entrepreneurs line the available sidewalks, hawking their services, selling local handcrafts and recently available consumer durables. TVs and cell phones are ubiquitous, as are motorbikes, parked four deep or flowing through the streets like a great marathon race. Although communist countries, these are consumer cultures, noisy, on the move, the current generation, making up for lost time. Their history – one of colonialism, war, occupation, deprivation, starvation, poverty, and communism -- is so different from mine. So many in these countries did not make it to my age. The women’s faces are lined with sorrow and deprivation, aging them by twenty years or more. I am sitting at the Bangkok airport to board a flight to Yangon (Rangoon) -- our jump-off to ten days in Myanmar (formerly Burma). Mandalay and cruises on the Irawaddy and Mekong rivers and other exotic places I have never heard of, even in the movies, are on our six-week itinerary. All I have known of Mandalay is that is mystical, strange, a romantic setting for a 1940s film noir. I never dreamed I would be there, in reality. Burma’s (Myanmar’s) borders and economy have been closed since the military coup in the 1960s, a ban lasting until the late 1990s. For half a century, socialism held back modernity. But technology and popular culture are breaking through the military regime’s hold. TV antennas sit atop the thatched houses on stilts of the lake people, fishermen who still row their hollowed dugouts with their legs and know English phrases from MTV. Hollywood “action cinema” is so popular in Myanmar via pirated tapes that “Arnold” is a familiar figure. But only the military have cell phones, and the internet is heavily censored. Yahoo is banned, along with amnesty international sites. I cannot retrieve my email, late in the afternoon, at a local internet cafe in Rangoon. Myanmar is exotic, and darkly repressive. The military regime controls everything, and everyone; paranoia is operative as residents are fearful of even the slightest anti-government remark. Our guide speaks to us in whispers. He is a medical doctor who dreams of getting out of the country on a student visa, to resettle in Europe. He would love to come to the US, but that is impossible for him. We share typical Burmese dinners with him, eating with our fingers. Although the country is rich with beautiful stupas and temples, and lovely French colonial architecture, much is in disrepair. On our first day of a walking tour to
124 Rangoon, now Yangon, the closely watched state of repression becomes evident. Although there were barriers blocking access, and signs that prohibited photographs, Jonathan (for whom rules and prohibitions existed as a challenge) was determined to get a photo of the American Embassy. So he nonchalantly stepped up to the barricades, took out his camera, and snapped. Immediately, he was surrounded by police, forcibly trying to grab his camera, and pelting him with loud questions and threatening him with waving arms. He remained unbowed! Our guide and I caught up to this explosive scene, with our guide explaining that we were ignorant American tourists. It took several minutes to assure the police that we didn’t pose a threat. But this was a very sharp warning that Myanmar’s current politics are very real indeed. This didn’t deter Jonathan in his obsessive desire to drive past the home of Aung San Suu Kyi, the imprisoned freedom fighter. Her home was in a former French colonial enclave of tired, beautiful mansions and lovely foliage. But there were barricades on her street. Our guide feared losing his job, so Jonathan decided not to attempt to walk past them. The owner of the resort on Inle Lake, a primitive outpost, is also said to be a former freedom fighter, now a radical politician, actively working for the overthrow of the present regime. We met him but didn’t discuss his past or his imprisonment. We spent several days in his local resort of thatched roof huts in this remote culture only accessible by boat. As for hundreds of years, life is lived on the water. Crops are planted on the water atop floating weed beds, and tended by boat. In scenes right out of National Geographic, boatmen row with their legs and feet while standing up, their hands free to fish or farm. Homes are on stilts, with the lake beneath providing plumbing. We boated to local craft factories and temples, knowing that we were at the edge of a delicate balance with the ways of the past and with nature. How long could a place like this survive now that there were TV antennas on a few thatched roofs? And tourists as regular customers? Again, Jonathan’s smile and engaging nature were magnets for the female sales force, hawking local trinkets/artifacts in their dug-out canoes. It wasn’t that he was a sucker, he just loved human beings, a passion fueled by his immense curiosity about people’s everyday lives. He was unfailingly kind, respectful, a bit irreverent, and could laugh at his own ignorance, which never seemed to bother him. We traveled down the Ayewaddy River, on a five day Pandaw River Cruise. The Irrawaddy Flotilla Company was “established by Scot’s merchants in 1905, eventually running over 650 vessels in Burma, mainly paddle boats.” This was the river of the teak trade, when the forests were cut over to supply the exotic wood for furniture and decor. The company was done in when the Japanese invaded in 1942 and “revived in 1995 by a Burma historian, who restored an original Clyde built steamer called the Pandaw.” Life along the river was primitive – the villages were comprised of mud huts and a single industry, like making whiskey. There were a few motorbikes and more oxen River life still dominates Burma and forms the main system of transportation and irrigation. Even more remarkably, Buddhist activities permeate every aspect of life. Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon (formerly Rangoon) is a magnificent, spectacular golden domed Buddhist temple, on a hill overlooking the city. Like other famous and sacred Buddhism temples, it is adorned with precious jewels and gold and silver. This temple
125 was the focal point for the post WW II Independence movement and again came to prominence in the 1988 revolution against the Burmese military regime. It was the anchor point for the Buddhist protests of 2007 – until the military crackdown imprisoned hundreds of monks. North of Mandalay, near the banks of the Ayewaddy River, is a gilded Buddha. As an offering, people paste gold leaf on the Buddha, now thickly crusted in gold. In this country, building a stupa is still one of the most meritorious acts. 129 The signs of so much Buddhism in the midst of a repressive military regime is a striking contrast, nowhere more astonishing than in Bagan, where there are remnants of 4,000 stupas. It’s actually hard to describe this wondrous place, for there are temples everywhere, now protected in an enclave, outside the city proper. It is a major tourist attraction and a reminder of the power of spirituality. We stayed in a resort owned and managed by Germans, as was our hotel in Rangon. The signs of the U.S. are minimal, at least for now. I had received a book of Stupas at a talk by the Dalai Lama in San Francisco, a gift for being a sponsor of his visit. It perfectly described the role of these sacred buildings in Buddhist cultures: “The stupa fuses two functions:” 1) keeping alive the memory of the “great teacher, Gautama Buddha, by providing a focal point for commemorative activities and a container for holy relics;” and 2) “serve[ing] as a bond among members of the Buddhist community who view the structure as a potentially powerful instrument for spiritual transformation.” (When the Buddha died, it is said that eight kings divided up his remains – building stupas to house them.) Pilgrims make offerings of flowers, incense and candles at the base, particularly on the east side, the direction from which the sun rises. Another form of reverent offering is circumambulation; walking along the circumference in a clockwise direction. This is “said to induce a meditative state of mind to better contemplate the Buddha and in some traditions, accumulate religious merit.” The Buddhist scholar and teacher, Robert Thurman, writes that “Stupas are memorials to the immanent possibility of freedom from suffering for all beings . . . Stupas stand as eloquent testimony to the higher purpose of life, beyond competing and struggling, getting and spending. Consciously or subliminally, they help turn people’s minds away from their frustrating obsessions and towards their own higher potential.” 130 “An encounter with a stupa is an encounter with myth – or as Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell might have phrased it, an archetypal truth. What may at first seem only to be an artistic and perhaps nostalgic arrangement of brick, stone or wood may eventually come to be seen as an elaborate vessel, transporting the Boddhidharma across three millennia.” (8) We returned to Thailand, to Chiang Mai, 430 miles north of Bangkok. On our first day, we visited every temple in the old city. But by now, we were in overload; we
126 had taken in and experienced all the sacred temples we could hold. It was as if my spiritual energy had been either exhausted or over-indulged. And it was a national holiday in Chiang Mai, an ancient celebration of water and the rainy season. The contemporary ritual involved throwing water on everyone who walked or rode or ran past. There was a water parade set up on the main streets – a soaking festival replete with fireworks, music, high spirits, and Buddhist monks. After being deluged by buckets of forcefully thrown water, when walking, and then having our car window bombarded with sudden and abrupt bursts of water, we decided to ride bicycles, away from town. Bad idea. Individual houses had big barrels of water in front and pails to pelt all passersby. We got soaked, and it was more dangerous than walking. People and traffic were everywhere, celebrating. My hair was a mess! This was the excuse we needed. We retreated to the sumptuous oasis of our hotel suite in The Regent Chiang Mai – where we could watch a farmer and water buffalo work the rice fields just below our terrace. The hotel surpassed even the brochure: “A true showplace . . . the majestic resort sits amid 20 acres of tropical gardens, looking out over rice paddies to the mountains beyond.” The rooms were luxurious, of deeply polished and gleaming teak, with silk embroidered linens and traditional arts. Our exquisite meals were served in our private gazebo, or sala. We abandoned any notion of cultural enlightenment, education, or adventure and enjoyed this private respite. Being with Jonathan made this, and many other extraordinary experiences, possible. By opening up my heart, and my mind, my life and my environment had expanded, exponentially so. I was overwhelmed by gratitude. What a long way I had come – from being afraid of a committed relationship to being deeply grateful! We emerged on the third day, and drove to the royal summer palace and the most sacred temple in Thailand, on the top of a mountain. By now, my mind could not absorb any more experiences, to say nothing of place names. Both places were teeming with tourists, but the throngs couldn’t override the magnificence of either site. But the most moving experience came from the performance at the Elephant Conservation Center. Here, elephants, no longer necessary for labor, perform for tourists to earn their keep, taking their strength and abilities into entertainment rather than logging, hauling, and construction. This project also provides work for the elephants’ now out of work owners/handlers who used to make money hauling teak, before the forests were decimated, before Caterpillar replaced the strength of elephants. I first learned about elephant painting in Palo Alto, at an opening/charity auction at a local art gallery. I bid on, and won, an elephant painting, a work I love which hangs at Sea Ranch. Here, at the Conservation Center, was the source of that painting. We watched elephants paint, holding a brush in their graceful trunks. And it was lovely. The painting I bought for Dae was beautiful and inexpensive, unlike the pricey auction item I purchased. I was deeply touched by the elephants’ humility, apparent in their performance of log rolling and lifting; I was impressed by the grace and agility and power of these wondrous creatures. Why is it that elephants always make me cry? This has been true since I was a child visiting the Vilas Park Zoo in Madison, Wisconsin, and standing in
127 awe and melancholy, outside Winkie’s cage. My emotions were exactly the same, now more than 55 years later. I realized that elephants have much to do with time. When riding one this day, I was aware it felt like time had slowed down. To encase such gentility in a large covering is, perhaps, the source of elephants’ mystery. Finally, I think it is their humility that so inspires and moves me. They could so easily crush us, yet they quietly serve us. From there we went to Chiang Rai, the Golden Triangle where the borders of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos meet – famous as an escape or attack route during the almost constant wars in this region and infamous for the drug trade, for opium and heroin. We boarded a private river boat, a Pak Ou boat with a staff of three and “open air seating,” that would take us to the Luang Say Lodge, on the shore of the Mekong River, the half way point to Luang Prabang, in Laos. For seven hours of solitude, we observed the forests and river life. Fishing poles lined the bank, discretely so, the only sign of people. The Mekong is a way of life in Laos, a source of food and a social center for settlements. “It is the tenth longest river in the world, and its source is the Tibetan plateau. After the Vietnam War, anti-communist forces escaped across the Mekong to refugee camps in northern Thailand. And during the war, the Mekong provided bases for raids.” Laos has been invaded many times during its history. More recently, the Siamese (Thailand) were the overlords until the French arrived at the end of the 19th century -gaining sovereignty in 1904. Following the Japanese occupation during WW II, France united Laos into one nation. “Within five years, the new nation endured communist incursions and a civil war which lasted for over 20 years.” The rebel Laos, backed by China, established the Peoples Republic of Laos in 1975. “In the 1950s Laos received more American aid per person than any other country. In the 1970s it received more bombs from America than any other country.” 131 The country is still recovering from the effects, physical and political, of this large scale disastrous bombing in the 60s and 70s. Along the way are many large Hmong villages. The Hmong are mountain farmers whose main cash crop was opium, used for heroin production. They are seminomadic, clearing the forest area by burning and then abandoning the fields, exhausting the land. Traditional costumes are still worn by Hmong, who live in houses of wood planks and bamboo, with dirt floors. Villages had a single hanging light bulb. I remembered the large Hmong community in Milwaukee; it had severe social problems primarily manifested by street gangs and poverty. Displacement and separation like this is an ordeal I’m not sure I could survive. The much vaunted, sought-after modernity has a dark downside. We arrive at Luang Say Lodge, on the steep shore of the river backed by thick, dense mountain jungle. Now this is an adventure! “The 16 large pavilions of solid wood all have balconies looking out onto the Mekong River. The buildings, of traditional Laotian architecture, are connected by planked walkways.” The food, served by candlelight, is simple, as are the sparse, handmade accommodations. But the setting is very dramatic, right out of another 1940’s movie.
128 The night is black dark, moonless, with a single, hanging electric bulb in our room. An intense thunderstorm blows open the wooden shutters and blows out candles, making the stilts and bamboo walls rattle and sway. The sound track mixes jungle noises with wind. I love this experience! Jonathan, on the other hand, is apprehensive, worried (terrified?) about, of all things, bugs. (Not that the shaky structure will crash down the steep hillside!) So I scramble, ducking the banging shutters, soaked, to rearrange the mosquito netting over him. He is not the outdoor type, although he wouldn’t admit this. Then again, neither am I any longer. But tonight I was in a movie, playing my role of fearless heroine with bravado. Near Luang Prabang, our destination in Laos, set into a high vertical cliff face on the river bank, are the “magnificent cave temples of Tham Ting . . . which contain thousands of Buddha images, 1 or 2 metres high, made of wood and coated with lacquer and gold leaf 132.” Begun in the 15th century, this is the site of a ceremony at the Laotian New Year. Jonathan’s knees are too inflamed to climb the many tiny stone steps. I proceed, alone, awed by the reverence for nature, the water, and the Buddha. Our boat docked at marble stairs along the riverbank, right below the Royal Palace Museum, which houses many 15th century Buddha images. Declared a world heritage site by the UN in 1995, Luang Prabang is a sweet, small city of 16,000. Much of the old town is preserved, with cafes along the riverbank, curvy streets with small craft shops, and 32 old and well-preserved temples. In 1990, there were only 300 tourists. But that is rapidly inflating for this gem of a city, still preserved in time. Luang Prabang “is being recognized for the exotic Asian jewel that it is.” 133 We loved this precious city and walked to most of the thirty-two temples, filled with monks of all ages. We rode bicycles around the town and took a motor scooter out to the country. I could have stayed here for weeks. One morning was memorable. We got up at 4am. It was pelting sheets of rain, and we had a big box of ramen dried noodles to balance on our motor scooter as we rode into the quiet center of town. Jonathan dropped me off on the main street. I stood awkwardly, balancing the box, until an old woman with a big bowl of sticky rice kindly beckoned me to sit beside her. Soon, more than 200 saffron robed monks walked by – with their bowls, for alms. I bowed each time I placed a packet of rice noodles in their bowls. Meanwhile, Jonathan, wanting to get to the heart of the experience and be a more active participant, had driven his motor scooter, vroom, vroom, into the temple courtyard, where the monks were gathering for their morning ritual walk through the town. He was jocular, talking, smiling, not noticing the silence of the monks or the quiet of the early morning. However, the monks were not censoring. They saw his generosity and enthusiasm and responded in kind. It was a delightfully loveable scene. My memory of the kind Laotian grandmother, welcoming me to her side, looking at me with acceptance, is one to keep. At heart, we are the same. The differences were only on the surface. It was a gesture I will equate always with Southeast Asia.
129 In Bangkok, we checked in at our favorite hotel, the Peninsula Hotel, and hired a cab for a high speed, low pass of major historical sites, including the opulent Grand Palace and the spectacular reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, in the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. This magnificent 150 foot sculpture, covered with gold, fills the entire temple and is surrounded by bells which visitors can ring. This was my first experience with Buddha in recline, a pose I read that he assumed at his death. Jonathan was lagging behind me, like an absorbed child, striking every one of the bells that lined the walls. Our guide loved his enthusiasm. This was the last Buddhist temple we would visit. It was a big finale, and a sight without any distanced perspective. For the building fits the statue like a snug glove. It is impossible to stand back and comprehend the whole. We concluded this joyous adventure at an elegant resort on the beaches of southern Thailand, in Krabi, the Rayavadee Premier Resort, accessible only by boat. As the brochure understated, there were “26 acres of palm trees . . .Circular pavilions built in traditional Thai style have spacious living rooms with curving staircases that lead up to opulent bedrooms and sumptuous baths with huge round bathtubs. There are several pools and five star restaurants” and the amenities go on, and on, until they were swept away by the Tsunami that hit Thailand. It was a spectacular beach, surrounded by rock hills on the shores, but the inhabitants of the oasis were white tourists, like us. The luxury made it feel like anyplace. And because there were 26 acres of anyplace, there was no outside, no Thailand, no Asia. It was time to go home.
130 CHAPTER 10:
A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Panama
Dr. Ashok Bedi, Jonathan’s elegant, brilliant Indian psychoanalyst -- who has infused Jungian principles with Eastern spiritual philosophy -- has a metaphor for the irritants and conflicts in relationships. He sees them as the sand grit in the oyster that ultimately creates the pearl. For him, these grating frictions – replays and mutations of age-old complexes -- can be beneficial if not transforming. All we need for old pain to turn into joy is to develop the awareness of these unconscious patterns of thought. Sound easy? Not at all! Because they are old and deeply buried and we are unaware of their nature, this is clearly not a simple task. Which is where a psychoanalyst comes in – as the translator of flailing emotions into their underlying causes and subsequent patterns of behavior. Which is something Buddhism, or Siddha Yoga, doesn’t do. An intimate relationship can thus become a means of self-healing by uncovering and then taming old fears and insecurities. Now this is easier said than done. Going through old defenses or complexes involves pain, it takes staying power, to say nothing of humility and surrender. To say that these are not my strong points is a severe understatement. As I have repeated perhaps too many times, Jonathan and I both brought old baggage into our new partnership. Neither of us initially had much awareness of the effect of our fears and defenses on the other. We were both too enthralled with our own stories, or blinded by our own pain, or caught up in our own fears, or seeking praise and credit for our actions. In addition, I had no role models for intimate relationships. When taken individually, my parents were gracious, intelligent, generous people – beloved by their children, many friends and extended family. And they truly loved and were devoted to each other. But the way they often conducted their marriage was another story, particularly for young children. First would come a small criticism (Peg, the beans are burned again, or Bob, you need to watch your weight); then bickering, which would erupt with my father’s shouting, door slamming walk-out, and my mother’s tears in the closest bathroom. These scenes never changed – they simply replayed. They were food fights. My own marriage, now more than a quarter of a century ago, locked in my fear of long-term commitment. It went something like this: I would become dependent and trapped in his limited ambition and achievement, embalmed in a stifling boredom and inequality, with no financial independence or security. As a result of this fear of entrapment, akin to being buried alive, my solution to disagreements and squabbles is to
131 leave, or at least threaten to leave. The internal pressure to run away builds to such an intolerable degree that I feel as if I will implode. Instead, I explode – and say things I regret, necessitating apologies and the attendant quilt. Jonathan’s fear is both older and more recent. His mother was a brilliant woman who received a degree in economics – then a rare achievement for women. She worked in the family business alongside her very charismatic husband, George, a very creative and restless entrepreneur who had great successes in his ventures, along with failures. Jonathan remembers Dorothy as a creative, involved mother who also had outbursts of anger with him. And he was the second son, the trouble-maker and tease rather than the A student his older brother, Dave, was. While Dave left home for college in the east and adventures in Africa and Asia, becoming a journalist and magazine publisher/editor in Hawaii, Jonathan married his childhood sweetheart, a short, attractive blonde he began to date in high school, and worked in the family business in Wisconsin. They married while still in college so most of his history as an adult, thirty-five years, includes her. Reportedly, she withheld her feelings and emotions, except for the power of her disapproval. Dr. Bedi analyzed Jonathan as having a severe mother complex, based on a deep fear of abandonment and anger toward unpredictable, irate women. . (I suspect that like me, addiction can be traced back in Jonathan’s family, explaining some of the painful history. For anger is the handmaiden of the disease. Today, at 92, Dorothy is sweet and mainly air, sipping her vodka, smoking, and going in and out of memories, acceptant of life as she awaits death, always thrilled to see the two sons she dearly loves. She lives in beautiful condominium overlooking the harbor in Honolulu; her main companions and caregivers are Collette, a lovely woman who has become a daughter, and Kathleen, who oversees, loves, and cares for everyone.) Thus, during his marriage, he always had what Bedi called his hedge fund, a female backup when his wife would shut down to (or protect herself from) him. He had lived the male double standard that I had railed against for much of my feminist life. For him, however, this was also denial, or disavowal – call it Jonathan’s addiction, of which I was initially unaware. In doublespeak that he truly believed, akin to the process of denial, he insisted that his wife had complicitly agreed and that his behavior benefited both of them. (AA would soon disadvise him of this delusion.) Thus, after 35 years of marriage, he envisioned a harmonious divorce and a future as friends, including a fantasy building a joint family compound on 35 spectacular acres they jointly owned in the mountains of Telluride, Colorado. After all, they were wealthy and money wouldn’t be a problem. 50-50 was fine with him. This illusion of happily ever after affairs began to unravel even before the divorce (but it took time for Jonathan to accept the reality of her negative feelings for him.) The clincher came when she locked him out of his home office, cutting him off from his financial and professional materials. Talk about castration for a businessman! Jonathan was dealing with a very angry woman, and it was not me! Her anger inflamed him. And his irritability could rudely shift onto me.
132 And I have my problems with angry men, due, primordially, I imagine, to my father’s yelling, scaring me when I was a little girl, and later, conversely, to my former husband’s regular and torturous use of the silent treatment, withholding any revelation of his feelings. Yes, there is heavy baggage. And we sometimes whack each other with it. For example, it was January, 2005, the balmy night before a cruise through islands in the Caribbean and the Panama Canal on the way to Costa Rica. We were in a hotel in Florida, sunny, 75 degrees, 1000 thread count, gourmet food, and a view of the ocean, with a breeze. It was late and we would be boarding the luxury liner, Crystal Harmony, early in the morning. Then Jonathan checked his e-mail, receiving a notice from Dee Dee informing him that she would be sending him less money from the trust for his next monthly allotment. Fury! This was the family trust, established from the extraordinarily successful sale of his publication company. He was the President, the Chairman of the Board. She was the wife, the trustee only for tax purposes. I initially felt empathy and tried to console Jonathan. Meanwhile, his resentment toward her (and perhaps toward angry, out of control women like his alcoholic mother) would build up and sometimes spill over on me. Jonathan was not aware of the displacement, along with the changes in his mannerisms – narrowed eyes, clipped syllables, curt, unsmiling replies. I would hear anger, even disgust, in his voice. Fear like that of a child about to be chastised would well up in me. In addition, I resented the sleepless night, the loss of tranquility, the intrusion of his ex-wife who was, for several years, present in our relationship, another elephant in the living room. Invariably, I reacted to his irritability. Inevitably, I talked back, fueling the flames, now angry at his anger and disrespect. After this slow emotional buildup, the main event was a big, climactic scene, not between Jonathan and Dee Dee or his mother, or between me and my dead father or my ex-husband, who would have been the true antagonists, but between Jonathan and me. Raging, I packed my bag, heavy with evening clothes for the cruise, and dragged it into the hallway of the Lago Mar Hotel in Fort Lauderdale. “I’m going to the airport. You’ll have a better cruise and life without me.” The drama queen dosed with the martyr took center stage and made a big exit. Slam, bang. Out in the empty hall, I had second thoughts about missing the cruise, along with hurting Jonathan, and sheepishly returned to the room in a conciliatory manner. Not to be outdone, Jonathan, now the drama king, packed in a parallel furor, and left. I sat on the edge of the bed, stunned. How had this happened? We had been so content, so harmonious and then, wham, this emotional explosion, which felt more like mortar fire than sand grit. Jonathan’s fear of abandonment was triggered (not surprisingly) first by Dee Dee and then by my threatening to leave. He in turn aggressively attacked me for hurting him and I become terrified of staying . . . and so it goes, round and round. In a way, these dramas are very funny, and great if redundant grist for psychoanalysis, but mainly they are exhausting, like two old boxers in the ring who can’t quit throwing punches until they both pass out. As Dr. John Beebe, my Jungian psychoanalyst in San Francisco, says, we
133 don’t have complexes; rather our complexes have us. Weary from battle, I hauled my suitcase down to the lobby of the Lago Mar Hotel. He was still there, waiting. Then I followed Jonathan into the waiting cab. The unspoken, the tension, between us was so heavy it hurt. That sunny afternoon, in a quiet, wary truce, we boarded the Crystal Harmony and were escorted to our penthouse suite on the 10th deck of the ship – spacious, luxurious quarters, including a Jacuzzi and a 24 hour butler. The Caribbean air was balmy. Again, I was in a romance setting, with ten days of exploring, reading, and writing, and nights of black tie dinners, shows, and movies ahead of me. How lovely can life be? I feel such gratitude for the pleasure and kindness of companionship. For so many years, I carried all my own bags, making all the decisions. To be the beneficiary of another’s care and love is a cherished state. After the Canal and docking in Costa Rica, we spent five days in a small resort, Punta Islita, on a coastal mountaintop – in hammocks, infinity pools, eating delicious South American cuisine. I awoke each morning in a four poster canopy bed, with a glorious view of the Pacific Ocean – just like in the movies. I remembered many years ago being in Tahiti, on my way back from talks in Australia. It was the same balmy weather, in a beautiful ocean resort, and I remember feeling very alone, unable to share the romantic setting with anyone. Seeing life with comparable eyes, building a history of shared experiences, being emotionally open with and vulnerable to another . . . are new found values for me. I never thought this would happen to me. This was impossible. For me, the key is my reaction, my response – I can be compassionate and truly listen with patience or I can feel hurt, second best, as I did in the hotel room the previous night. I can consider Jonathan’s emotions seriously, or I can judge them, usually as excessive or ridiculous. In choosing compassion, I treat myself with tenderness as well as Jonathan. Patience allows time to listen or time to cool down. When I react by choosing hurt and anger, then I make both of us miserable. Mmmmm . . . let’s see, which one? Oh, compassion, yes. If the positive choice is so obvious (and so easy -- silence and listening), then why is it so difficult? Why do I so often behave like Pavlov’s dog, responding with hurt and anger? I have more than 50 years defending myself against emotions I didn’t understand or like but emotions which I also learned -- my father’s sudden anger and irritability, my mother’s martyrdom. In the rare instance that I choose compassion, my higher self emerges, and it is healing, soothing. But more often, my ego, my false pride, takes over and defends itself at both slight and intense provocations. The scenario of the martyr emerges, triggering the need to run away – which my father and mother both did, usually getting only as far as the garage (my dad) and bathroom (my mother). The moment of choice is subtle, but this space between thoughts and words is always there. What to do? Run away? Be righteous, or simply right? Or stay, which means experiencing pain, learning about surrender as strength and humility. Do I want to polish this pearl or do I want to find another oyster without so much history? No matter –
134 the same insecurities will come up in me. And if it’s not an ex-wife who can become prominent in another’s imaginary, there will be something else. If I can stay, if I can listen, if I can surrender my will to be righteous or even right, then we can go somewhere beyond our personal fears and limitations. Of course, there is a third option – becoming an oyster myself, without either the grit or the pearl. This will leave me without the friction. But then I will go nowhere, gain nothing, and lose the insight into my soul that the frictions can reveal. The American Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, has all the answers I will ever need. This brilliant woman was trained in the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism, as a student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a meditation master who founded Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. 134 I have learned much from three of her books, The Wisdom of No Escape, When Things Fall Apart, 135 and The Places that Scare You. 136 The first step is to “face how we harm others, and it takes a while. . .because of mindfulness, we see our desires and our aggression, our jealousy and our ignorance. We don’t act on them; we just see them. Without mindfulness, we don’t see them.” (WTFA, 33) Just a caution – mindfulness takes great effort and is an achievement. “The next step is refraining . . . It’s the quality of not grabbing for entertainment the minute we feel a slight edge of boredom coming on. It’s the practice of not immediately filling up space just because there’s a gap. . . If we immediately entertain ourselves by talking, by acting, by thinking – if there’s never any pause – we will never be able to relax. We will always be speeding through our lives.” (33) “We learn to pause for a moment . . . it’s a transformative experience to simply pause instead of immediately filling up the space. By waiting, we begin to connect with our fundamental restlessness as well as fundamental spaciousness.” (35/36) “Buddhism teaches that there are four things that we like and become attached to and four things that we don’t like and try to avoid . . . First, we like pleasure; we are attached to it. Conversely, we don’t like pain. Second, we like and are attached to praise. We try to avoid criticism and blame. Third, we like and are attached to fame. We dislike and try to avoid disgrace. Finally, we are attached to gain, to getting what we want. We don’t like losing what we have.” Becoming immersed in “these four pairs of opposites – pleasure and pain, loss and gain, fame and disgrace, and praise and blame – is what keeps us stuck in the pain of samsara, the world.” (46) “We carry around a subjective reality, which is continually triggering our emotional reactions. Someone says ‘You are old,’ and we enter into a particular state of mind, either happy or sad, delighted or angry . . . the irony is that we make up these eight worldly dharmas. We make them up in reaction to what happens to us in this world. They are nothing concrete in themselves.” (47) “We might feel that somehow we should try to eradicate these feelings . . . A more practical approach would be to get to know them . . . to see that they aren’t all that
135 solid . . Then the eight worldly dharmas become the means for growing wise as well as kinder and more content.” “Seeking security or perfection, feeling self-contained and comfortable, is some kind of death . . . We are killing the moment by controlling our experience.” Chodron advises us to sit on the razor’s edge, not hanging on to being right or wrong, being in that space where “we’re not entirely certain about who’s right and who’s wrong? . . .Could we have no agenda when we walk into a room with another person, not know what to say?” Everything is ambiguous, everything is always shifting and changing. (83) “We think that by protecting ourselves from suffering, we are being kind to ourselves. The truth is, we only become more fearful, more hardened, and more alienated. We experience ourselves as being separate from the whole. This separateness becomes like a prison for us, a prison that restricts.” (87) “When we protect ourselves so we won’t feel pain, that protection becomes like armor that imprisons the softness of the heart . . . When we breathe in pain, somehow it penetrates that armor.” (89) “The journey goes down, not up . . . Instead of transcending the suffering of all creatures, we move toward the turbulence and doubt. We jump into it. We tiptoe into it . . . We explore the reality and unpredictability of insecurity and pain, and we try not to push it away.” (When Things Fall Apart, 92) When I can “explore the reality of insecurity and pain,” I become aware of the mirror a relationship can be. I can see myself in him; and I can see myself through his eyes. Both views are ultimately generous and acceptant – of sags, wrinkles, flaws, quirks, habits, pains and all the imperfections that make us human. “The painful thing is that when we buy into disapproval, we are practicing disapproval. When we buy into harshness, we are practicing harshness . . . The more we do it, the stronger these qualities become. How sad it is that we become so expert at causing harm to ourselves and others. The trick then is to practice gentleness and letting go . . . Instead of struggling against the force of confusion, we could meet it and relax. We can learn to meet whatever arises with curiosity and not make it such a big deal.” (27) The title of this chapter, “A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Panama,” is a palindrome, it reads the same backward and forward. This is also true of emotions – which can be read positively or negatively. So the trick is not to repress or deny them, but to let them breathe and then recede as, simply, feelings. Letting negative emotions fuel actions only rebounds negatively. Why do I make “such a big deal” out of my emotions? I am learning about the conflict points, my words that are tinder boxes of hurt/anger. I am trying to apply this scrim to my words: Are they necessary? Are they honest? Are they kind? Many of my little remarks are not, at core, kind. My irony can slip into deep sarcasm. In Be An Island, Ayya Khema stresses the right time for speaking. “The right time to speak is when we are completely calm and the other person is attentive, at ease, and ready to listen. If there’s anger, it’s the wrong time. . . Unless we
136 learn these skills, we will have many emotional accidents in our relationships.” I love this phrase, “emotional accidents,” they used to be commonplace experiences for me. Most importantly, I am learning to hold my ground, to stay, to lean into the pain, as Buddhism teaches, rather than escaping it, to admit my responsibility, to accept criticism and then to own the error. Interior pain is unfailingly a sign that I am learning about surrender, patience, and humility – the triad that makes unconditional love possible. As feminism had done for me previously, helping me discern the way women were viewed and contained in the real world as well as on television and in the movies, the irritable (and delightful) encounters of an intimate relationship are leading to self insight, to self awareness – to the deeper layers; the process can be nourishing, and painful, but insightful and ultimately beneficial. When I look back, after I have passed through an issue by taking responsibility for it, I wonder why it hurt in the first place. 137 AA encourages us to take personal inventory, a detailed analysis of our “character defects.” Some of my defects had not been glaringly apparent as long as I lived alone. Or at least so I imagined. But there was no one there to tell me. Being in a relationship was a different story, with a great deal of feedback and sometimes reverb. I had much to learn, and much to change. Ayya Khema points to many of them in Be an Island. . On Listening: “creating our own viewpoint is one of the worst errors we make when we believe we are listening . . . Listening means being empty of self-importance and reacting to what we hear with empathy . . . Just listening, with total attention . . . without making up our own story about it, without our mental chatter, is part of compassion. It is also loving kindness.” (48) I am a terrible listener, impatient, often jumping ahead and providing the answers to my own questions. Or I would interrupt, or change the subject, cutting off the other person. More than anything, Jonathan needed to be heard, needed his thoughts to be recognized. And he would tell me later that this was true of my sister, Nancy, and Rob. I needed to let them speak and to listen quietly. Rarely could I listen without providing my own summary analysis, usually a grand and often flattering theory. I was so full of “selfimportance” there was little room left to learn from another. I was focused on “making up my own story,” for which I expected praise and credit. “A feeling of superiority or inferiority is the opposite of peacefulness . . . producing restlessness. There is always the reaching out, the craving for a result in the form of other people’s admiration or their denial of it.” Khema speaks of “emotional accidents,” a great concept – and cautions us about deliberate speech, watchful action. ”Clarity of thinking comes from the purification of our emotions . . . we must not identity with emotional upheavals. . .” (53) and say something hurtful we do not mean, or do something we would regret. My habit was to jump into my own drama as the wounded party, or the worthless one, thereby perpetuating the “emotional upheaval” by turning it into a melodrama
137 worthy only of Harlequin or LIFE. When the drama began, I needed to win, paradoxically by being the acknowledged victim of another’s aggression, by being right and righteous. “In war there is never a winner, only losers . . . both sides lose. The same applies to a feeling of being victorious, of being the one who knows better or who is stronger or cleverer. Battle and peace do not go well together.” (62) Just so in relationships. There are only losers when emotions go into competitive battle. “Is it really peace we want? Or do we want to be somebody special, somebody important or lovable? A somebody never has peace.” (63) “Wanting to be somebody is dangerous . . . it hurts constantly.” (64) “Being content means being satisfied with what we own and with how we look, speak, live, and react.” (94) I have some distance to go but I am on my way.
138 CHAPTER 11
An Old Girl Learns New Tricks: China, the Market, and Me
Jonathan and I spent three weeks in China, which began with a CEO University in Shanghai, September 18-23, 2005. Like the Vietnam CEO event, there were terrific speakers during the morning sessions. But their words could not describe or fully explain the economic explosion that is occurring in Shanghai. Learning came from traveling around the city. Skyscrapers, built by some of the world’s foremost architects, stretch into the horizon. A brand new, modern city of comparable size, across the river, has been built in only ten years. Every detail is planned and executed by the government. The scope is in multiples of imagination. Just the planting along the freeway from the airport into the city is wondrous. Four to five rows of perfectly placed trees and then more rows of flowers and shrubs extend for miles, with nary a single weed, an unbelievable scale of landscaping, a scale of labor that is incalculable. Like countries in Southeast Asia, there are remnants of colonial powers, particularly in the Bundt, an international zone reminiscent of the presence of the British, French, and Germans. Tourists flock to this part of town with its lovely restaurants and shops, including designer venues, which the young Chinese prefer to the knockoffs. China feels like money and economic power on the move, billions, not millions, of dollars in energetic motion. The art market has taken off, although we visited the loft painting studios of several up and comers whose work in 2005 was still affordable. The influence of U.S. pop and collage artists from the 1950s and 1960s on younger artists was apparent. These works would soon be reviewed in The New York Times and their prices immediately escalate. In their own context, some of the images must be very sacrilegious. On our own, we flew to Wuhan 138, boarding a Chinese boat for a Yangtze River Cruise, visiting the spectacular Three Gorges Dam. This half completed project, in Yichang (Hubei province), is a mammoth undertaking to provide hydroelectricity and flood control for the millions of inhabitants along this major river. Entire new cities of millions have been built on higher ground along the banks, modern high rises replacing small village homes; millions of people have been relocated, by government mandate. Urban planning in China can move swiftly and totally, massively, giving a new definition to this last word. We ended the cruise in Chonqing, a huge city with 9 million population and construction cranes everywhere. When the Japanese captured the Nationalist capital in 1938, the government moved here. 139 We flew south, to Guilin, to see the poetic Li River. Rather than take the large, crowded cruise boats, Jonathan hired a private motorboat to take us from Guilin to Yangzhou. We speed-boated through this ancient, world-renowned landscape. The
139 fantastic peaks along the riverbank were right out of a movie studio’s special effects department. Watching rural farm life, fuelled by only human and oxen labor, along the riverbank sent me back a century or two in time. Life on the river appeared to be peaceful, humans living in tandem with animals and the land, rather than dominating both. There were no high-rises, no property lines, only washing clothes and feeding animals. Scenes like this are vanishing from the world, and the sadness in this loss can be penetrating. The unimaginable scale of China is not new, as was apparent at the historical monument, Qin’s Terra-Cotta Army in Shaanxi, rightfully known as the 8th wonder of the world. This monumental discovery in 1974, near Emperor Qin’s mausoleum, opened to the public in 1979, with work and discovery still going on. Pit 3 opened in 1989 and Pit 2 in 1994. The entire mausoleum is enclosed, stretching out like several domed football stadiums. Qin was the first emperor in Chinese history; he built the Great Wall of China. Obsessed with his fear of death for most of his life, the Emperor looked for the elixir of immortality. When he was seriously ill, ministers were not allowed to even mention the word, “death.” in his presence. Despite his efforts, the Qin Dynasty only lasted from 221 to 206 BC. 140 In a final attempt to outrun death, the Emperor built this huge mausoleum, in the belief that there was life underground. The life he imagined was a warring one, with a full army. Pit 1 has 6,000 warriors and horses. 13,000 are in Pit 2, arrayed in battle formation, including chariots and charioteers; Pit 3 is the command center, with fewer figures, well protected. The warriors were life-sized sculptures, exquisitely made, fired at very high temperatures, and individualized. “No two figures unearthed so far have the same features or expressions.” (Catalogue, 78) The figures were painted in great and colorful detail, but a fire in 206 BC damaged the pits, fragmenting the figures, which had to be pieced together after their discovery in 1974. Finding one piece per day is considered a success. The act of reconstruction is a magnificent restoration. Like the landscaping, it is on a scale imaginable only in China. Paradoxically, the mausoleum -- filled with the ancient energy of an army of thousands of figures, permeated by our imagination of the artisan’s labor, and noisy with the throngs of chattering, pushing tourists and the ongoing archeological work -- is in the tranquil, quiet countryside, discovered by farmers plowing their fields. All the action is underground, buried by the silence of history and the tranquility of nature that has covered over the grandiose effort to master it. We stayed in Xian city, in a huge, sumptuous hotel suite the Clintons had occupied during a recent visit to China, where they were superstars. We had no idea why we had been upgraded to this room, which felt cavernous, like the mausoleum. During our tour of the suite, Jonathan grimaced with worry that I might ask “Why us?” jinxing our good fortune, but I didn’t. (Old girls can learn new tricks!) Xian is, I think, a more accurate portrayal of China – the roads are pockmarked and bumpy, most buildings are 1950s modernism, now decrepit, cold and ugly, built
140 haphazardly, wherever. There is debris, no landscaping, and virtually no trees, destroyed as foliage was during the Cultural Revolution. The air is dense with pollution, as in all the big cities, made worse by the escalating number of cars and trucks and industrial, super-sized factories. It feels like everyone is in a hurry, trying to become rich! hastening to capitalize on this moment in Chinese history when enterprise is making millionaires of individuals working in tandem with the Communist government. China is for a younger generation’s imagination. Our granddaughters need to learn Mandarin. Our final stop was Beijing – and more famous sites: Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and Mao’s tomb in Chairman Mao Zedong Memorial Hall, open to the public since 1977, a year after his death in 1976. It was a national holiday, so miles of Chinese visitors waited patiently and quietly in line to walk past this tomb. Somehow Jonathan skipped to the front, taking a sheepish me with him. (This took an accomplished skipper, given the pushback quality of the Chinese citizens.) Mao’s face is visible through glass. “His embalmed body lies in state, wrapped in a Chinese flag inside a crystal coffin that is lowered each night into a subterranean freezer.” I just couldn’t believe I was seeing the head of Mao Zedong, in this famous square I never imagined experiencing. Famous television images of the stand-off in this square superimposed themselves over reality. Where was the tank? The protesting student? We didn’t see any other Caucasians in the thousands of visitors in the Square. On the way out, the hawkers of Mao wares found an avid customer. I enthusiastically bought a dozen Mao key chains, only later realizing that no one I knew would want one. The critique of Mao and the Cultural Revolution is just beginning in China, although one could see the effects of its destruction everywhere, particularly in the absence of foliage and the decay of the outlying areas. So much had been destroyed. There were no Buddhists left in China, at least that I could see. There are few trees and fewer temples or stupas. While the centers of big cities were changing into postmodern havens of glass, steel, high tech, and green, landscaped areas, the remnants of the devastating past were still visible in decaying sections of town. 141 I was exhilarated by the monumental quality of China, and I was exhausted by it. How to wrap one’s mind around the contradictory economics of China? Its population density? Its massiveness? The fact that I felt completely safe, in Beijing as elsewhere, late at night, alone, and this was not true of New York or Menlo Park? There were no beggars on the streets, as there are in San Francisco. Although there was so much more to experience, the thick air and the noisy congestion made me long for the solitude and purity of Sea Ranch. I was weary of a material logic of more, as far as the eye and mind can see. We drove to the Great Wall, out in the tranquil countryside. The long lines of backed-up tourist buses at each entrance, the throngs walking along all parts of the wall, made it feel like the Super Bowl or the Fourth of July more than China. I tried to imagine the heroic endeavor of building the wall, but Chinese tourists kept bumping into my historical reverie. The crowded present erased the solitude and quiet of the past. It was too late to really have an experience of the Great Wall. China felt frenetic, in a terminal
141 hurry, as if the entire populace had to get somewhere or something now, before it was too late. After about 100 feet, I had enough. We have a photograph of the two of us, on the Great Wall, at least a few feet of it, for just a few minutes. The polluted air of China was becoming enervating. My eyes were weary from looking. I had lost my desire to shop, even for knockoffs. We changed our reservations and left Beijing a day early. As always, the drive up the California coast, on Highway 1, to Sea Ranch was exhilarating, as if I were there for the first time. By now I knew the curvy road well and drove it like a racecar driver. As I passed the farms along the coast, I realized that it’s true. Even the cows are content in California. Where to next? 142 After a CEO trip to the Middle East was cancelled as being too dangerous, Jonathan and I began to get serious about contentment, about avoiding drama of any sort, about quieting our noisy minds, and learning to accept ourselves, as we are, “warts and all,” to use his favored phrase. For two restless souls, afflicted with wanderlust and easily distracted thoughts, this was no small task. I already had the answer: sitting still, observing our thoughts, in silence. Meditation is a paradoxical endeavor -- It is so simple, yet it is the most difficult thing I have ever done. Seriously. As Khema tells us: “In the beginning, meditation is not delightful at all. It seems bothersome . . . with ingredients of suffering. But when the mind understands what one is doing, namely watching each moment as it arises, it becomes fascinating to get to know one’s mind.” (Being Nobody Going Nowhere, 75) Our thoughts are just that, passing, elusive thoughts. We can watch them and not get caught up in them. This is harder than it seems. As the Buddha said, “The one who conquers a thousand times a thousand armies is as nothing compared to one who conquers him or herself.” (77) The goal of meditation is not a blissed out high, or an escape from reality, or a series of fantastic visual images, although this can be part of the experience. “Meditation has one object only, namely to prepare the mind to get out of all suffering, to prepare it for liberation. It is a means to this end and not for pleasant experiences. Those do happen, and why not? Let’s be grateful for them.” (77) There’s that word, liberation, again. But rather than escape from someone or something, this liberation comes from within. In Be an Island, Ayya Khema writes: “In the Buddha’s words, nothing is more valuable than a controlled and skillfully directed mind.” The greatest support for a tamed mind is “mindfulness,” which means being present in each moment. If the mind remains centered, “it cannot make up stories about desires, or sorrows or injustices.” (23) As I reflect on these words, I realize, with a smile, that most of my worries and fears were (and some still are) contained in stories about “desires, sorrows, and injustices,” in one form or another. I had repeated these sad tales so many times, they had become real, they had become my history. If I could stay mindfully focused on the present moment, these stories would not automatically rewind and then replay. They could be stories, not my life. They could just be passing thoughts rather than triggers for sad emotions. After all, I was not the star of a Hollywood melodrama.
142 Khema expands on the negative effects our stories of “desire, sorrow, and injustice” have on our minds and hence our lives. About desire, she writes: “Notice the dissatisfaction, the pain, the dukkha, that arises in the heart and mind whenever we want something. When we drop the wish, we experience relief . . .the dukkha lies in the desire itself, which creates tension, a feeling of expectation thinned with worry. . .The desire creates a thought process that is no longer concerned with the here and now, but with the future. A mind preoccupied with the future cannot attend to the present moment . . . When we deliberately drop our wishes for things, the release and relief generate a feeling of strength, a feeling of self-confidence ensures. The more we drop our wishes, the more powerful the mind becomes . . . here power means power over ourselves, not others . . . Such potential is like a powerhouse from whom energy can be drawn . . . As soon as the mind has dropped its wishes, we can experience the ease of contentment.” (119) The Pali word for suffering, or pain, is dukkha; according to Venerable Henepola Gunaratana, this doesn’t mean just the “agony of the body. It means that deep, subtle sense of unsatisfactoriness which . . . results from the mental treadmill.” 143 The way off the “mental treadmill” of repeated stories of woe and worry is to realize that there is nothing left to want. Although the habit of having and then fulfilling various desires through eating chocolate or shopping or remodeling or planning trips and parties or writing yet another book can kick in, at heart I have no more wishes. What is there left to want? I already had everything (and more) that I needed. The realization of enough, of no more, changes the very nature of reality and is a soothing, freeing experience of contentment. “If we can see that there is nothing solid anyway, that everything is moving, even our blood stream, such a moment of seeing frees us from craving and clinging . . . Clinging is always connected with the fear of losing, and craving is always connected with the fear of not having or not being. Fear and anxiety are the natural states of being in this condition.” (Khema, Be An Island, 120) The Buddha saw that “everybody was suffering on account of craving and clinging.” (121) “Liberation does not happen by grace from above, descending on us like a golden mantle of bliss. It requires moment-to-moment mindfulness. Unless we are fully aware of the contents of our minds, unfortunate moments may predominate. That’s why one sees so very few happy people. Happiness is not an accident, it requires hard work. Peace comes about by letting go. . .Wanting nothing goes beyond not wanting, because one now accepts the reality that there is nothing worthwhile to be had . . . Wanting nothing makes it possible to experience that actually there is nothing – only peace.” (121) Khema concludes her wondrous little book with the way to get to liberation, moment by moment: “Being mindfully aware in and out of meditation is that practice that brings results. It means doing one thing at a time, attentive to mind and body. When listening, just listen. When sitting in meditation, just attend to the meditation subject. When planting a tree, just plant. No frills, no judgments. This habituates the mind to be in each
143 moment. Only in such a way can a path moment occur, here and now. There is no reason why an intelligent, healthy, committed person should not be able to attain it with patience and perseverance.” (129) 144 Earlier, she described some of the benefits of meditation. “The more we experience every moment as worthy of our attention, the more energy is generated in the mind. There are no useless moments, every single one is important if we use it skillfully. Then strength of mind arises. Single moments add up to a life that is lived in the best possible way.” (25) Along with my exercised body, I can strengthen my mind through meditation, through mindfulness – focusing on the present moment as a practice, something I can do. This is in accord with the principles of AA which advises us to live in the present moment, not regret the past or anticipate the future. 145 “Unless the mind becomes extraordinary through meditation, we cannot possibly gain the understanding that the Buddha expounded, the ordinary mind does not have the depth, lucidity, and expansion necessary for such transcendental wisdom.” (103) “Full meditative absorptions are the means to an end, namely insight. If the mind cannot become one-pointed, insight will not arise. The mind will remain contracted, dull, hampered by obstructions . . . meditation removes the limitations, widens our horizons, and deepens our perspective. We can believe in the impossible just as children do and trust in the seed of enlightenment in our hearts.” (105) I suspect this wisdom often comes in the form of joyous laughter that bubbles up from a well-spring within – I can still hear and see the Dalai Lama’s sweet smile and soft, rolling laugh. And Gurumayi, unable to continue speaking because her impish laughter keeps floating up as sheer joy, delirious happiness, without limit, infinite. This is selfgenerated, spontaneous laughter and joy and it is highly contagious. It is the giggling laughter we remember as a child. I might always have an “ordinary” mind, but I, too, long for the “wisdom” of the “extraordinary mind.” This light-hearted feeling that arises after meditation of any sort is a childlike feeling of joy. I have felt it often, momentarily. But then my thoughts of “desire, sorrow, or injustice,” puncture it, sometimes congealing into an old story of “poor me.” But I can stop this immediately through the self-effort of focusing on the present moment, of being “mindful,” which prevents my stories from gaining momentum and carrying me away with them like an inevitable Tsunami. Sometimes Jonathan will look at me with trepidation, anticipating my flight of irate fancy: “Pat, don’t go there, please, you don’t have to go there.” I used to feel like indulging whatever story was being fuelled by untamed emotions and thoughts. Now I know that his warning is accurate. I no longer enjoy in any way the pain of indulgence. Now I try and listen to his old stories and complaints with compassion. Not surprisingly, our clashes have subsided, downgraded to minor skirmishes, gnat bites. Stephen Batchelor provides another reason for the central place of meditation and discipline. “Meditative discipline is vital . . . because it leads us beyond the realm of ideas to that of felt-experience. Understanding the philosophy isn’t enough. The ideas
144 need to be translated through meditation into the wordless language of feeling in order to loosen those emotional knots that keep us locked in a spasm of self-preoccupation.” (Buddhism Without Beliefs, 88/89) 146 I have lived so long in the realm of “philosophy” and my own ideas, my intuition and memories, my own “self-preoccupation,” that the “emotional knots” were very tight. As a result, I had what Khema calls “emotional accidents.” Yet my “emotional knots” are loosening, although it has taken a Guru, a trip to India and many visits to an ashram, two psychoanalysts, countless spiritual books, one grown-up daughter and one son, and a seven-year relationship with Jonathan – a complex man, a man of complexes. Khema tells us that equanimity is “the crowning glory of all emotions, evenmindedness. Its far enemy is anxiety and restlessness but its near-enemy is indifference. Even-mindedness is based on the wisdom and the insight that everything changes, on an understanding of total impermanence. No matter what happens, it will all come to an end. . . There is nothing that is really significant except liberation . . . Everything constantly changes, whether good or bad, ‘It’s just happening. What is there to gain? Where is there to go? It’s just happening.’” Gunartarama describes a point that comes in meditation when “you vividly experience the impermanence of life, the suffering nature of human existence, and the truth of no-self. You experience these things so graphically that you suddenly awake to the utter futility of craving, grasping, and resistance . . . our consciousness is transformed . . . Craving is extinguished and a great burden is lifted. There remains only an effortless flow . . . There remains only peace.” (191) And this is what I have been looking for, all my life. This is what “happily ever after” has come to mean to me.
“Happily Ever After”
In July of 2005, a few months before China, Jonathan left Sea Ranch for a motorcycle trip with his Milwaukee group of businessmen, arrayed in his HarleyDavidson leather best. This rough bunch of sixty-year old Midwest CEOs, the “leather buts,” begins with a big catered breakfast, rides for a half day, meeting up with an elegant picnic luncheon delivered by the host’s private jet, and then rides for two more hours to reach the private Wisconsin lodge and lake of the host, where they are feted with champagne, duck, caviar, and other delicacies throughout the afternoon and into the evening of billiards and brandy, their every need tended to by a large, crisply uniformed staff. This is the new motorcycle chic, a far cry from Marlon Brando in The Wild One. (Yes, I have ridden on the back of his Harleys, on a trip from Oregon down to Sea Ranch, in my new black high-tech motorcycle garb. Yes, I also have black leather pants. And I gradually began to enjoy the experience. The Harley noise-level is ferocious, the close-up view is the back of a black helmet, and the wind on the North California coast
145 dries out eyes. But I want to take motorcycle lessons, on a quiet Honda or BMW. Why? If the experience is as meditative and thrilling as reported, then I don’t want to miss it – even if, at 66, I might need a three-wheeler. And help getting my leg over the seat.) In tandem with this yearly event in Milwaukee, Jonathan had scheduled several in-person sessions with his psychoanalyst, Dr. Bedi. (For the rest of the year, they had 55 minute telephone sessions from wherever we were – phone analysis.) Jonathan insisted that I be on the phone from California, for a three way. And this was not unusual. We often did tandem telephone sessions with each of our shrinks. This particular morning, I sat in our bed at Sea Ranch, looking out over the golf course and the Pacific Ocean, feeling very lucky indeed. When Doctor Bedi asked for my input, I reported that I was concerned that Jonathan was taking on too many projects with/for others. After all, he was trying to find the time to write his book on selling family companies, and he had a great first section and title, “When the Passion is Dying, It’s Time to Sell.” When I finished squealing on him, Dr. Bedi asked if Jonathan had anything to add. I expected a rejoinder or a rebuttal. Then, out of the blue, he asked me to marry him. I almost dropped the telephone. This had been on the agenda several years ago, before his father died. But after his Hawaiian proposal, Jonathan had dropped the subject. I was glad that we didn’t have video phones because my hair was ratty, uncombed; I was wearing old pajamas, surrounded by piles of books and newspapers, hardly a glamorous vision for a proposal. But on second thought, this was nothing. Jonathan was in his analyst’s office, calling in his proposal, with Dr. Bedi on the phone! He must have been very fearful. There was a very long pause. Not because I had any doubts. I was, for the first time in my life, speechless. Cut to the chase: I accepted, happily, and we were married six weeks later, on August 27th, 2005, in our home at Sea Ranch, with a brunch at the house and a luncheon for AA friends, and an impromptu evening dinner/dance in a large, unfinished space next to our office in downtown Gualala. We wrote our own vows, and John Ford, our friend from AA who got his minister’s license over the internet, married us. There are no party planners in Gualala, so it was a do-it-yourself wedding, a humble, makeshift extravaganza. 147 Every member of our immediate families came. 148 We didn’t dance until dawn, but it was late for Sea Ranch, 11 pm. And everyone wore evening clothes, quite a change for this casual place. Married, at 64! And in love for the first time. Why? It was not only the insights that came from our psychoanalysts, although they figured crucially, or the inspiration that came from spiritual teachers and practice, it was witnessing the healthy marriages at Sea Ranch. We were surrounded by older couples who enjoyed and respected each other, with few of the buried tensions and irritations that infected and interrupted the many pretenses of happy marriages I had known previously. All the women -- the dreaded “wife,” spouse, or my preferred, partner -- were powerful, talented, outspoken. In this isolated place of few distractions, where everybody knows what everybody else is doing, Tim and Dibby Tyler, Kathleen and Dave Ball, Bill and Jeannie Osterland, Rich and
146 Kathy Geary, and Ned and Connie Seale, along with many others, had made marriage look desirable and possible. In fact, their marriages felt like freedom, not imprisonment. They shared the duties and joys of everyday life, along with the adventures of travel. When the health of one partner failed, the other effortlessly and lovingly picked up the slack. At parties and in life, they were like smooth tag teams. They still laughed at each other’s jokes and listened to each other’s stories, with interest, not long-suffering tolerance. They cared deeply about each other but were not at all solicitous or gushy. The harshest admonishment was Connie, in exasperation, “Oh, Ned.” They turned my negative attitude about marriage around. But I knew I was taking a big risk. I was an expert on living alone. I was used to making all the decisions, to say nothing about having my own way. In fact, my way or the highway was accurate. And I knew for Jonathan that I was a risk, given my short track record on relationships and my dramatic, untamed emotions. His record of marital fidelity and honesty was at the bottom of any scale. But I also knew that we had admiration and respect for each other at our cores, despite the sometimes volatile surface. I knew that we ran deep, that we wanted to go even deeper. That for us, pretenses and easy ways out would never suffice. We were both too curious. We vowed to be thoroughly honest, from the start. I was also inspired by Dae’s and Rob’s recent marriages. In 2003, Rob’s heart had begun to improve enough so that he began to think of dating, for the first time in his life. He met Priscilla Fung -- who had come from Hong Kong to study for her Master’s in Engineering at Stanford, eventually moving with her elderly Chinese parents to the Bay area and working in the computer industry. Like Rob, Priscilla’s history was of being the best student in class. These two brilliant, attractive, and shy computer engineers wrote long e-mails to each other for months. They were perfectly suited and were married in the Stanford Chapel. Being with Jonathan at Rob and Priscilla’s traditional Chinese wedding – beginning with a tea ceremony and concluding with a ten course dinner -- was a delightful experience. He galvanized out of town guests, 149 serving as a lovely host and enthusiastic participant. The fact that he didn’t speak any Chinese didn’t deter him from leading the toasting party in a conga line through the large Chinese restaurant with Mrs. Fong, Rob’s new mother-in-law who didn’t speak English but had a lovely laugh. Dae stood up for her brother and gave a moving toast to their loving history as brother and sister. In the video of the couple’s history, I saw familiar old photos of Rob and Dae as children, of my parents, and of the five of us, together. In a flash, I saw what my life had been about! In 1990, I had been in India, asking for Gurumayi’s care and guidance for Rob’s heart. My gratitude to her came in large doses. Dae’s wedding to Larry Peck, a successful portfolio manager from Long Island, in 1999, was a magnificent affair in a mansion on Park Avenue. With Larry, Dae meticulously fashioned every detail of a Jewish wedding to perfection. But the
147 experience wasn’t as smooth as Rob’s. Two nights before the wedding, on the way home from The Lion King, Rob slipped and broke his shoulder in several places. We spent the next eight hours in the emergency room. The scene was uncannily familiar. This scene happened all the time in our lives together. Rob was patient, stoic; Dae was upbeat, emotionally supportive; I was anxious, efficient, pro-active. Dae selflessly dismissed any concerns about her wedding. Miraculously, we all made it to the rehearsal dinner the next evening. With his shoulder in a sling, Rob danced at the wedding the following day. He had taken lessons in San Francisco, which completely surprised us. 150 It was an elegant, joyous, traditional Jewish wedding. But there was no Jonathan to share the emotional side-effects. And it almost didn’t happen. Because Dae had not converted to Judaism, Larry’s rabbi and others had refused to marry them. They were in a panic about what to do. I flew to New York and called a delightful Rabbi whom I knew from the Ashram in upstate New York. Now in his 80s, Rabbi Gelberman had been a close friend of Gurumayi’s teacher, Baba Muktananda, and had an ongoing relationship with Gurumayi. I told him of our plight. He agreed to the wedding and arranged a meeting with Dae and Larry. They loved him. The ceremony was magical. I could feel the presence of my parents and the blessings of Gurumayi. Rob and I walked Dae down the aisle, Rob was her best man. Nancy was my gracious and charming date, dancing till dawn with Patrick, her son. One recent experience, in 2006, was particularly wondrous and unexpected: a conference on Buddhism and neuroscience at Stanford University, a gift from Rob and his wife, Priscilla. For ten hours, we sat fifteen feet in front of the Dalai Lama, listening to talks by leading scientists and meditation teachers on the intersections between Buddhism’s complex theory of the mind and contemporary scientific research on the mind. The Dalai Lama participated in the dialogue after each talk. By the end of the day-long event, it was clear that the academics, and everyone in the packed auditorium, were in awe of the Dalai Lama, who graced the scholars with long white scarves as they bowed, humbled by his presence and wisdom. It was also clear that the most advanced intellectual research on the mind and brain was child’s play compared to Buddhism’s system of the mind and emotions. One significant aspect of the experience was attending with Rob. Against all odds, he was alive, handsome and healthy, and married. This was not the scenario predicted by doctors in 1987, when his cardiomyopathy was first diagnosed; or when his congenital bone disease, osteogenesis imperfecta, was discovered in 1975. Part of the reason was Rob’s sweet nature and extraordinary discipline in mind and body. But his twenty years of high professional and personal achievement were in the realm of miracles more than medicine. Seventeen years ago in India, I had asked Gurumayi to care for my son’s heart. And this is what she has done. 151 And more. For she has given me a spiritual path which is the most fulfilling, joyful endeavor of my life. As my heart becomes softer and more open in my new marriage, I look back and realize that I, too, had a serious “heart” ailment. It was closed to true intimacy. I had locked the door to even the possibility of a
148 loving relationship with a man. I had been given a second chance. And this time, I was getting it right.
149 EPILOGUE Now Our quest for contentment, for serenity, became paramount when Jonathan’s heart began frantically beating at 200 to 220 in December 2006, racing for five weeks until the electrical paddles shocked and then restored his regular heart beat. For a split second, he died. In February, 2007 Jonathan had surgery for two knee replacements. Two years before that, it was a new hip, with another in the offing. Cataracts and hernias added to the hospital time, diabetes to the urgency of the present. What used to be crises have become everyday life. And this is our mutual future in old age – of the body giving way and the letting go of the identity that comes from the body, including its achievements and ingrained habits. Andrew Harvey puts it better than I can: “As long as we remain ourselves – the story, the biography, the vanity, the self-obsession, the addiction to the body . . . death will terrify us, because death is the masterpiece of illusion.” (290) 152 Jonathan and I will face our deaths together and alone, and what could be a more significant or dramatic adventure than this, except, perhaps, getting ready for the journey? “When we come to the end of life we have to renounce everything . . . we might as well learn something about death before it comes. This is why the death moment is so often a struggle. Many are not ready to renounce everything. Previously they hadn’t given this a thought.” (Being Nobody, Going Nowhere, Ayya Khema, 139) Although I have looked for freedom all my life, I have never thought that “liberation” was possible for me. In fact, even imagining it was embarrassing. I was just too superficial, too material, too undisciplined for such a lofty aim. But Khema makes “liberation” accessible, in small increments, by suggesting the following: “Suppose we are attached to or highly appreciative of a person, a situation, a belonging. Can we let go of clinging to it?” This is a great practice for a relationship. Ditto the aging body. We see that “everything is fleeting; we let go of our belief in the solidity of things. We thereby let go of our attachment. If we can do that with anything, even for a moment, we have won a moment of liberation . . . a moment of direct knowledge that nothing has any intrinsic value, that it’s all a passing show . . . this is an inkling of what the Buddha meant when he spoke about freedom.” (Khema, Be An Island, 117) Letting go “for a moment” is something I can do, lengthening the moments into an “inkling” of freedom. When we can see that “all is fleeting, flowing, moving, and changing from one moment to the next, we have a moment of freedom. And so the body, its fleeting nature, and our attachment might wane. Buddha recommended the daily recollection, ‘I am of the nature to die’. . .This body cannot remain, no matter how hard we try to keep it . . . We are fighting a losing battle.” (118) With age, the awareness of losing the battle with
150 our bodies becomes apparent. Khema practiced daily that “everything that is mind and is dear to me must change, even our bodies.” She repeated: “I cannot escape decay, I cannot escape illness, I cannot escape death.” 153 The ongoing and coming stage of our mutual life is an inner journey; it is a journey of less, not more. For we are letting go of many things – the identities that came from professional achievement, the adrenaline of ambition, the addiction to work and a busy social life; the definition of what a productive day means; the need for distraction and continual entertainment; for me, the craving for shopping, fashion, and other stuff; and most visibly, our bodies. We are trying to lose, finally, the burden of old complexes, old habits, old fears and stories, and the weight of old egos of self-importance and vanity. 154 And we are gaining, at last, the freedom (and adventure) we were both looking for, and so much more. Along the way, we can share, with our grand-children, what Sogyal Rinpoche calls “the power of wisdom and compassion.” “The teachings of all mystical paths of the world make it clear that there is within us an enormous reservoir of power, the power of wisdom and compassion . . . If we learn how to use it, it can transform not only ourselves but the world around us. Has there ever been a time when the clear use of this sacred power was more essential or more urgent?” 155 In January 2007, Jonathan, and I attended an all-day conference at Stanford University to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the birth of Rumi, the Persian poet and Sufi leader. We sat with Rob in an enthusiastic audience consisting of many Iranians. This day together, spent with Rumi scholars and admirers, was Rob’s gift for my 66th birthday. The event concluded with a deeply moving, improvised evening performance. Robert Bly, the poet/philosopher, white haired, tall, still vigorous, and eighty-nine years old, read poems by the Sufi poet, Rumi, accompanied by Iran’s most famous violinist, small, wizened, delicately bent, and eighty-six. The joy of lives well lived came over the audience in waves. Old Age made this possible -- along with the power of a spiritual path that picks us up and carries us to unplanned places even when we don’t know it. Being something, anything, is to fully inhabit, or embody . . . whatever, without hedges, or qualms. It is a state without equivocation. Being 60 (or 70, or 80), is to embrace all the aches, joys, wrinkles, intelligence and experience that have accrued in six decades. Being 60 is facing the last part of life with an attitude – of assertion and acceptance, of curiosity and humility, all dosed with humor and joy. Being 60 is prime time – experience has taught us how to live well, and contemplation is readying us to die peacefully if not nobly Life and death have begun to harmoniously co-exist. We are finding the last of what we were looking for – and we are letting go of things we no longer need. We know that nothing lasts and everything changes. There is nothing to wait for and nothing to want. We no longer wish ourselves to be “elsewhere or otherwise.” Any wealth that is worth having is within us – and we now have the awareness to truly know this.
151 Our many roles or impersonations are no longer center stage, just so many bit players who make brief appearances. Our identity is much deeper than any role. Being 60 is, for me, the fruition of accomplishments – of being a mother and teacher and seeker. It is also a last chance – to do what remains undone, unfinished. For me, that is being an equal partner – a part that was derailed for me in the 1970s. Mother, teacher, partner and seeker are all born from love and nourished by compassion and selflessness. As the roles continue to fade in time, the love and compassion will last forever. This is a legacy worth living and dying for. Being 60, what a time! The time I have now. 156
Patria Mellencamp is a Distinguished Professor Emerita of Film and Media Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the author of many essays and seven books on film and television. Her books include A Fine Romance: Five Ages of Film Feminism (Temple U. Press: December/January 1995/1996), High Anxiety: Catastrophe, Scandal, Age, & Comedy (Indiana U. Press, 1992), Indiscretions: Avant-Garde Film, Video, & Feminism (Indiana U. Press, 1990), and Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural Criticism, editor/contributor (Indiana University Press, 1990.
Since 2001, she has been living on the coast of Northern California, first at Sea Ranch and since 2008 in Monterey, briefly teaching at the University of California-Santa Cruz. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can access her through her web site, patriciamellencamp.com.
And importantly, be recognized for their talent.
This secret and arduous process involves the Committee of Distinguished Professors soliciting letters from famous scholars around the world, at least, thirty, testifying to the fact that the candidate is among the best in her field, internationally. The candidate never sees the letters, nor learns about the writers or the vote or the debate. The doctors first ruled out a viral infection, then genetic disposition, taking a history of four generations of both sides of the family. I called clinics around the US, talking with recommended heart specialists. None promised anything but all wanted an 18 year old as their patient – this case was extremely rare. But we felt as if we had found the best in Dr. Brooks. Finally, we were given these odds, along with a warning that anything could happen at any time: There was a 33-33-33 chance that his heart would degenerate, remain the same, or slightly improve. There was no medicine that could cure him; there was no time frame, from sometime today to twenty years from now. The only eventual solution was a heart transplant.
4 I had just returned from 30 days at the Betty Ford Center in Palm Springs in April 1987 and treatment for a grudgingly admitted addiction to valium. I was 46. Seventeen years earlier, my gynecologist had prescribed this tranquilizer for my difficulty sleeping. I was a single parent, with little money, two children, one chronically ill with osteogenesis imperfecta, a fulltime job and no daycare. No wonder I had trouble sleeping! Over time, valium became a problem, not a solution, resulting in blackouts, suicidal thoughts of death. Then came the recovery years of skin crawling anxiety and the discovery of the 12 steps of AA. This was the same time that Murphy Brown, a TV news anchor played by Candace Bergen, declared herself a recovering alcoholic, just back from the Betty Ford Center, on the premiere episode of the TV situation comedy, Murphy Brown. After she faxed her chest to the West Coast, it began to dawn on her that she had a problem. I loved her stylish character, which was very smart, talented, beautiful, outspoken, and funny. We had an identical taste in fashion – Donna Karan, then a new label pitched to professional women. I was thrilled that Bergen’s character played a recovering alcoholic; I became sober along with her. (In 2005, on Boston Legal, Bergen has returned to series television. On this quirky one hour show, she plays a senior partner, Shirley Schmidt, in a prestigious and eccentric law firm, setting a standard of accomplishment, independence, beauty, fashion and wit for older women.) Around the same time period, Chris Cagney (Sharon Gless), on Cagney and Lacey, stood bravely at an AA meeting and dramatically declared, voice quavering, hesitant: "My name is Chris and I am an alcoholic." The moment was poignant for me, beyond mere identification with a fictive character or situation. Unlike Murphy, who was more comfortable with male buddies, intimate female friendship also starred on Cagney and Lacey, a cop series; one partner, Tyne Daley as Mary Beth Lacey, was married, with children, the other, Sharon Gless, wasn't. Making the middle-aged leads of two popular TV series drunks, attractive, clever, single, recovering alcoholics and working professionals, was no small achievement, bringing addiction into the light and respectability of network television. It took some of the edge off my shame; it also made being an alcoholic fashionable, almost a trend. Indeed, this was one incentive for going to BFC, as we inmates and alumni affectionately called this desert oasis; I went there because of the Palm Springs, California sun, the warm weather of the desert, and the promise of celebrity encounters -- sort of like a paid vacation (due to full insurance coverage then) and one that would make great gossip. After so many sightings in The National Inquirer of movie stars at BFC, especially Liza and Liz, I was curious to learn more.
Rene Thom, Structural Stability and Morphogenesis: An Outline of a General Theory of Models (Reading, Mass: W.A. Benjamin, 1975), 251. This is taken from High Anxiety: Catastrophe, Scandal, Age, & Comedy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), p.4. It concerned a diagnosis of lymphoma after Rob had a lump removed. Two months and many tests later, the doctor reversed his initial analysis. Sigmund Freud, The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 20 (London: Hogarth, 1969), 165. Samuel Weber, The Legend of Freud (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), 143.
It included an analysis of women's aging, and a long section on gossip, along with a brief history of The National Enquirer and defamation law.
Thus, it wasn't the daily ritual of reading bedtime stories to my two children that I remembered in detail, but the many trips to the emergency room for Rob's forty-one broken bones (from osteogenesis imperfecta, a connective tissue disease), the emergency surgeries, and the late night traumas in the intensive care unit.
Unless, of course, one is akin to Joan Rivers, whose verbal comedy, like her multiple surgeries, also depended on abusing her own body, on savaging her own and others’ appearance.
These quotations were taken from a manuscript by Margaret Morganroth Gullette, "On Doing Age Theory," eventually published in a book, Cultural Combat (Charlotte: UP of Virginia). It came from Woodward, for our reading group at the Center for 20th Century Studies. Gullette urges us to distinguish our own stories from the "false narrative of culture," including the "gaze of repugnance" which many of us have internalized.
Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart (Boston & London, 2000).
In The Places That Scare You, Pema Chodron writes of the great value of what she calls a feeling of dread or psychological discomfort as “a sign that old habits are getting liberated . . . When our attitude toward fear becomes more welcoming and inquisitive, there’s a fundamental shift that occurs . . . we are curious about the neurosis.” 107. (Boston & London: Shambhala, 2001). Ego kept me separate, ego kept me captive to insecurities, ego repeated that I was fatally flawed and never would be enough.
I returned to the Ashram laden down with shopping bags. Very embarrassing! It took four trips to carry them up to my third floor room and store them beneath my iron cot. In one bag was a large and heavy sandalwood statue of Ganesha, the Hindu Elephant God who removes obstacles and is considered a protector in India. That night I had an unsettling dream of a huge ball of fire rolling through every room of my home in Milwaukee, burning everything, all my possessions. It was, I would learn later, a metaphorical prophecy for the work of the Guru, which is to burn away our egos, our small selves, to break our attachment to things.
Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (San Francisco: Harper 1993).
Yes, there was a dress code for speakers – long skirts, long sleeves, and high necklines. But by now, rather than rail against this restriction as offensive to my feminist sensibility, I took it as a shopping opportunity. My closet previously contained only two black skirts, for summer and winter.
Swami Muktananda, Does Death Really Exist? (South Fallsburg, NY: SYDA Foundation, 1981); a special issue of Darshan: Beyond the Reach of Death, Volume 133, April, 1998, a magazine published by the SYDA Foundation.
Swami Muktananda, Play of Consciousness (SYDA Foundation: South Fallsburg, New York, 1978; 1994, 2000.)
Not only did Buddhism begin in India and include many principles from Indian meditation, there is the commonality of the philosophy and techniques of Patanjali, along with other Indian saints. Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, Remembrance (South Fallsburg, NY: SYDA Foundation, 1998). Ram Dass, Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying (New York: Riverhead Books, 2000).
Thich Nhat Hanh, No Death, No Fear: Comforting Wisdom for Life (New York: Riverhead Books, 2002).
Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (Boston & London: Shambhala, 2000). Sherwin B. Nuland, How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter (New York: Random House/Vintage Books, 1995), “Introduction,” xvi.
Quoted in Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (Boston: Shambala, 2000), p.43.
Judith Lief, Making Friends With Death: A Buddhist Guide to Encountering Mortality (Boston & London: Shambhala, 2001) Cited in the Kapleau book, 104, below.
Philip Kapleau, The Zen of Living and Dying: A Practical and Spiritual Guide (Boston & London: Shambhala, 1998). Tyler Volk, What is Death? (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2002).
He then compares the primary emotions -- anger, sadness, joy, surprise, disgust, and fear, expressed between birth and 6 months – to what he calls the “self-conscious emotions” -- pride, shame, guilt, embarrassment, envy, and empathy, which come around 2 or 3 years. “Gratitude is not primary like fear.” It is on the side of “life forces,” emotions that reduce stress. The “death forces” include anger, depression, and shame. (67) “It seems to me the trick in contemplating death is to turn the awareness of it into a response that is a life force.” What fascinates him is that the “gratitude toward life in general is not aimed toward any person. Life itself has given me a gift.” Gratitude is not just an antidote to the concept of death, but “an emotion that can be intensified throughout life as death is kept conscious.”( 69/68) When he cites
terror management theory, the concept that people hold more tightly onto a world view when their mortality has been mentioned, unconsciously, the idea that “some of who we are is built on a response to the fear of death,” he comes to the ultimate contradiction – we experience the need for life and the knowledge of our death, simultaneously. “Realizing that death structures our life in the present can lead to a new kind of future life, a life more conscious of the interpenetrating co-existence of death and life.” (124/125) He then gives examples of our living on – “we are composites of people we know and love.” (128) Our favorite teachers are alive within us through images and teachings. (129)
Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell (New York: Harper Perennial, 1988), #33.
Linda Johnsen, Daughters of the Goddess: The Women Saints of India (St. Paul, Minnesota: Yes International Publishers, 1994, 82. See “Gurumayi Chidvilasananda: Beauty and Grace,” 73-85.
Many of the books I loved were published in translation by the Shambhala Center. In fact, publishing books is a key activity of many Eastern spiritual communities. ` 36 My Guru and His Disciple, Christopher Isherwood (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1980).
The teachings of Aurobindo Chose, or Sri Aurobindo, have also drawn many western seekers, as have the writing of Jiddu Kirishnamurti (1895-1986) been widely read in the West. Then there is the Spiritual Regeneration Movement of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, known as TM, or Transcendental Meditations (Classical Hinduism, A.L. Basham, 114-115).
Germaine Greer, The Change: Women, Aging, and the Menopause (New York: Fawcett, 1991).
39Throughout the writing of this book, I sought the company of older women in fiction, in novels whose authors are aware of the presence and effects of aging and death on the lives of their characters.
In The Gravity of Sunlight, by Rosa Shand, her protagonist, in her fifties, “halfway whispered to herself, sometime before they married, that she might not genuinely love this man. And that mere hint served to terrorize her – because she herself had chosen just as he had chosen. And she would never find the courage to listen to this interloper, truth – though from then on out she would somewhere know, beyond her rationalizing, that the bewilderment and anguish of their marriage grew from this one colossal cowardice of hers. But she could rationalize back then that a whole vast structure had been hammered up around them – by friends, by families, by their own heady expectations. And he provided her a place, an escape from parents who had dwindled, in her exacting eyes, to a heap of dull conventions. Everything supported their young marriage.” (48) These words could have been mine. They are frightening in their accuracy regarding my marriage in 1965. In Anita Shreve’s, The Last Time They Met, a woman arrives at a hotel, checks in, and is taken to her room. The next passage struck me with an uncanny force. “She was aware of scrutiny . . . impartial scrutiny simply because she was a woman and not entirely old.” (4) “Not entirely old” is a delicate putdown of women. Before her talk, this character, a famous poet, feels a “slight chagrin that she could never quite manage to hide . . . as if the men and women in front of her might challenge her, accuse her of fraud - which, in the end, only she appeared to understand she was guilty of . . . There was nothing easier nor more agonizing than writing the long narrative verses that her publisher put in print.“ (5) She will then meet an old lover, at a cocktail party “Their meeting after so many years seemed a large occurrence, though she
knew that all the important events of her life had already happened.” (17) The belief that the best part of life is over at fifty was, to my surprise, one held by me, until I lived my sixties and knew better. Margaret Drabble begins The Seven Sisters with this sentence: “I have just come back from my health club.” But it is a rather sad endeavor, not an assertive one for this character, who is forlorn. Much later comes this awareness: “Women are supposed to go on looking sexy when they are into their sixties. That’s all very well for people like Julia, who like that kind of thing, but it’s not very good for the rest of us, is it? For some of us, it means nothing but a sense of unending failure and everlasting exclusion.” (278) Drabble’s characters feel much older than I feel at sixty. And no wonder. Of older people, Drabble observes: “They are past the age for good news.” (232) . Speaking about Virginia Woolf in The Hours: “She has aged dramatically, just this year, as if a layer of air has leaked out from under her skin.” Elizabeth Berg’s “Never Change” is about a “selfanointed spinster at fifty-one, Myra Lipinski,” who begins to date at the end of the book. And Carol Shields’ Unless opens with: ”It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now.” (1) This opening sentence, by a character/author who has “her writing” as a consolation,” concerns her daughter, Norah Winters, who has become a street person, homeless. In sharp contrast to these melancholic or bittersweet renderings of aging women, is Gail Sheehy’s Sex and the Seasoned Woman: Pursuing the Passionate Life, a u-rah rah book for aging women (women older than 40), a book that discovers that older women are passionate and still love sex. Needless to say, this will come as no surprise to sixty-year old women, although Sheehy’s research, interviewing actual older women, on site, in their homes across the country, conducted like an anthropologist in the wilds of suburbia, is a thudding, repetitive conclusion presented as if titillating and profound. “Almost a million of the earliest boomer women will celebrate their 60th birthday . . . “The great transition in the passage to Second Adulthood for women is to move from pleasing to mastery . . . In our First Adulthood, we survive by figuring out how to please and perform for the powerful people who protect and reward us . . . But by our mid-forties, we are all looking for greater mastery.” (17) Sheehy must have thought life ended in the late 40s. Now that she is alive and kicking, she decided to form a movement, trying to elicit women to join together as Seasoned Women by going online, to her website, and signing up. This image of sexually aggressive sixty-year olds, asserting themselves by going online, is a bit like Lily Tomlin’s ironic incredulity when she described the activism of 70s feminism – beginning women’s consciousness groups as a solution to social inequities. Finally, I read novels about dead protagonists: Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones (New York: Little Brown, 2002), and Jim Grace’s Being Dead, a Novel (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1999). But these dead points of view, while telling good tales, were all about the mystery of being alive. Being dead is a tale that cannot be told. It can only be experienced.
Amanda Cross, Sweet Death, Kind Death (New York: Ballantine Books, 1984).
I was profoundly moved when I watched Marlene Gorris receive an Academy Award in 1996 for Antonia’s Line. First came astonishment that the director of A Question of Silence, a radical feminist film if ever there was, was being feted by Hollywood, and watched on network TV by billions. Then I felt a sense of exuberant kinship. Gorris, and feminism, did it! Feminism has had real, apparent effects. How to Make an American Quilt by the Australian filmmaker, Jocelyn Moorhouse, has a scene of community comparable to the outdoor feasts of Antonia. Women, now grandmothers, who have been together for generations make quilts which tell the story of their lives. Together, they have grown older, wiser, funnier. They have survived romance, loss, death, and betrayal and can embrace life with equanimity. Age represents gains as much as losses. The older women are beautiful; plastic surgery has not erased the expression on these actresses’ faces.
Ditto a Canadian film, directed by Cynthia Scott. Strangers in Good Company is about a group of older women, without any elements of masquerade, stranded when their bus breaks down in a beautiful countryside landscape. They have to spend the night in a deserted farmhouse. Nothing happens, except the stuff of ordinary life. No one panics, but they accept events and don't treat things like a crisis. They wait, survive, and remain calm, together. They rescue themselves, take care of themselves, and get to know each other. The ordinary, on second thought, is extraordinary indeed. But these films are rare experiences. The Silences of the Palace, a Tunisian film directed and written by Moufida Tlatli, is another version of generational history -- of a national culture and women's complexly subservient role within it. Patriarchy is not figural, but a deathly reality. The drama, and the love, between mother and daughter is a drama of revising history. Here, strength and support comes from the group of women working in the kitchen -chanting, laughing, and helping each other. Like Tracey Moffatt's Night Cries, the mother-daughter is the scene of political history, one of class and economics, as well as gender and ethnicity. Bhaji on the Beach takes on gender, race, ethnicity, as well as age in its history of generational difference. Here, Indian women of several ages in England go on an outing to the beach. Generational history is being made by women, for women, and about women. During each of these films, I felt love, remembering particular scenes as figures for the whole. This love is akin to the fetishist -- not of perversity, of the dirty old man, or of sexuality and the dirty look, the focus of feminist film theory, bound up with theories of narrative. This fetishist cuts out the pure segment of the tableau, an act which channels emotion. The figure, a gesture, a memory "becomes the sublime substitute of meaning -- it is this meaning that is fetishized!" This is what I experienced when watching the German documentary film about a highly controversial figure, Leni Riefenstahl. The Wonderful and Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl dramatizes Riefenstahl's great passion for filmmaking, for her intellectual life. At ninety, she is working on her underwater still photography. Shots of her skin-diving, liver spotted hands and all, are remarkable. Work is her sustenance, the animating source of her energy and desire. Analyzing her films on the moviola awakens this passion. She is articulate regarding the past and determined to stay in control in the present, including the direction of her scenes. But her love of film and her ambition have also been her agony. She has not been able to make a film since the 1940s. The scene I remember with poignant empathy is a shot of the facade of an apartment. Riefenstahl remarks that she lived there after the war and was not allowed to work for twenty years. The shot of the window is just a minute of a very long film, but it speaks volumes to me, of the sacrifice of twenty years of her life. For her, not working must have been a great agony.
Mad Madonna "died of a broken heart. The Protestant howled at the moon and died soon after." Pitte, the evil son of Farmer Dan, returns from the military, now fifteen years later, and rapes the beloved Therese. Antonia gets a gun, walks to town, and curses him. The villagers beat him, and finally, his brother drowns him. Antonia cries, for the first time in the film. Crooked Finger quotes the truth of Schopenhauer, that the world is a hell inhabited by demons. "Time does not heal all wounds. It blurs the memories." Therese goes off to college, where she is a brilliant mathematician, teacher, and a composer, but very unemotional. Deedee dies unexpectedly, Looney Lips is killed in a tractor accident, Letta dies in childbirth and the priest leaves for the city, but "the tragedies were not over." Crooked Fingers hangs himself in despair. Sarah consoles her mother, Therese.
My grandmother’s parents were German immigrants who founded a small farming community, Drywood, ten miles from Cadott, a very small town in Northern Wisconsin. Grandpa Goodman built the Catholic Church, St. Anthony's, where my father and mother are now buried, the dry goods store, and the cheese factory, along with his family home, creating a unique plumbing apparatus for bringing water up from a fresh spring. During my early visits, there wasn’t electricity or hot water. Heat came from a wood burning furnace in the basement and a stove in the kitchen. My mother, the eldest of ten children, left this same farm home against the wishes of her father to go to the city and get her high school diploma and then her degree in nursing – she always wanted to be a professional, to make her own money, to become educated. The local postman loaned her the initial payment for college. Soon after she graduated, she would support three sisters through nurses’ college. Her brothers are still dairy farmers, living in the same area of Wisconsin; the sisters left for California and Connecticut. My mother, like my grandmother, was made of steel, with a soft, generous heart; I can only remember her being angry once; she never “raised her voice.” After college, she married my father, from Wausau, the city in northern Wisconsin where my mother was attending Saint Mary’s College. My grandfather George was in banking and insurance, involved in the Wausau business community and my grandmother, Beth, was a homemaker and volunteer at the Presbyterian Church. The divides that made up this marriage were then social chasms – country vs. city, poor vs. middle-income, farming vs. business, working class vs. middle class, and grade school vs. college education. But of all the obstacles, religion was the greatest – Catholic versus Protestant, a hard and fast line. These differences would never heal between my mother and her mother-in-law, my Grandmother Jewson. Later I would learn about others – Grandmother Jewson was against smoking and drinking, it was forbidden in her house. When she visited us for holidays, my parents pretended that they did neither, never smoking or drinking in her presence. But despite the strained relationship and the many religious and class or social differences between my grandparents, there was one constant: they loved me unconditionally and I, them. Both of my grandmothers were devoted to their families, to their homes, and to their religion. In fact, faith, family, and domestic labor were inextricably intertwined. I never heard them complain about their enormous amount of work -- clothes on the line, picking and canning fruit, sewing all the clothes, scrubbing floors, baking bread, cookies, and pies and making three large meals per day, particularly on the farm. Most of the food was produced at home and then preserved in a fruit cellar for the winter. Work was their joy, a sign of their love, the measure of their usefulness, work ensured happiness, while faith gave it all meaning. My grandmother Rose claimed that cleaning kept her alive and healthy, completely, until 105. She painted the ceiling of her kitchen when she was 98 and continued to scrub her bathroom until 103. She credited God with granting her a clear mind and memory until the minute she died.
But more astonishing, I never saw either of these hard working women as subservient to their husbands. Both couples were devoted to each other – not in the sense of romance but in serving and supporting each other. In this, equality was never at issue, the division of labor was clear and their work was important, demanding; they knew it took talent and discipline. They knew that cooking, cleaning, sewing, gardening, tending children’s health and values, and helping their neighbors in time of need, serving their community selflessly, were nourishing, acquired arts, passed on from mother to daughter, perfected through generations. There was esteem (not egotism) and continuity in that lineage, the pride of having a spotless house, of baking the best pies, of having taste in clothes and talent in decorating, of managing money thriftily, of making ends meet, of providing food in abundance (after all, delicious food meant love), of being able to entertain graciously, and of both being a leader and able to serve one’s extended family. Mother was an honored to sacred position -- seen as the beloved teacher and nurturer she would continue to be for daughters.
Later, I would discover just how hard being a home-maker or house-wife was – to say nothing of being a mother. Wifery proved to be impossible for me – a role of just waiting and praising and performing domestic that was not noticed or acknowledged. Motherhood was tough for me – demanding fractured, constant attention, difficult for my intuitive mind that liked to wander, lost in thought. At times, I thought my brain had melted – there is no focus to maternal, domestic work, only scattered distraction and interruption. The most difficult and demanding period of my life was the two years I “stayed home” and “raised children.” I got a part time job outside the home to avoid going bonkers. Years later I would discover one reason for my restlessness – I saw myself as a victim, I had to stay home while he, my former husband, was able to have a real job. I resented that women’s domestic work was second-classed or not worthy of notice. After I was divorced, being a mother got easier. But I still had the inability to state what I needed, to admit that I had limited stamina for motherhood, that I needed my own time. I believe that my grandmothers viewed their lives as good fortune, as freedom rather than imprisonment, as both choice and duty – and for them duty was a high calling, not enforced labor. Their thoughts, their interior perceptions about themselves and their work, granted authority and expertise to domesticity, an authority that their husbands respected and acknowledged. This respect was bequeathed to their children.
Kathleen Woodward, Aging and Its Discontents: Freud and Other Fictions (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1991).
Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club (New York: Putnam, 1989), 48. Anne Tyler, Ladder of Years (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1995).
Gullette, Margaret Morganroth, Declining to Decline: Cultural Combat and the Politics of the Midlife (Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1997.)
Edward Albee, Three Tall Women (New York: Penguin, 1994). Samuel Weber, The Legend of Freud (Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota Press, 1982)
Susan Buck-Morss, “Envisioning Capital: Political Economy on Display,” in some issue of, I think, Zone, 111-133.
Steven Johnson, Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way we Create and Communicate (San Francisco: Harper Edge 1997.) This is a wonderfully smart and inventive book about contemporary technology. See his Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005; and also his Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software.
Georg Simmel, The Philosophy of Money, ed. David Frisby, Trans. Tom Bottomore and David Frisby (London & New York: Routledge, 1978, 1990).
Sherry Turkle is a professor at MIT who wrote an early book on the culture of computers. Susan Buck-Morss, 129-130.
Kathleen Woodward, “Statistical Panic,” Differences, 11.2 (1999), 177-203.
Ayya Khema in Being Nobody Going Nowhere: I love the idea “One dies an unconfused death.” We are all going to die. “The moment of death is important, because it is the moment of rebirth. It’s actually our birthday. Everybody talks about death as something sad and filled with grief. If death is experienced consciously, with awareness and full loving-kindness, then it is a good birthday.” 44.
Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2005), 113, 114.
61Carolyn Heilbrun, The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty (New York: Dial Press, 1997); Sherwin Nuland , How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter (New York: Vintage, 1993).
Richard John Neuhaus, As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning (New York: Basic Books, 2002). It was appropriate that this book was the most directly applicable to my experience of my mother’s death, for Neuhaus is a Priest, a Catholic, like my Mom. To explain, he recalls being a boy in the attic bedroom, remembering the actual moment when he went to sleep: “I wanted to know, to witness, the event of passage from the stage of being awake to the state of being asleep. But of course I never succeeded in this quest.” “Sleepiness was experienced as a thing within me moving toward sleep, and at the same time, a thing outside me that overtook and overcame me. Where am I, am I at all, when I am sleeping?” (96) But when we go to sleep, “there is a qualifying clause; at some point you are going to take your spirit back.”
For more on Rumi, see Addendum to this chapter.
See Haleh Pourafzal and Roger Montgomery, The Spiritual Wisdom of Hafez: Teachings of the Philosopher of Love (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1998). Hafez was the pen name of Shams-udDin Mohammad, who lived in the 14th century, in what is now Southern Iran, in Shiraz. He wrote hundreds of poems, and “he remains Iran’s most popular poet to this day,” 3.
See Margret Smith, Rabi’a: The Life & Work of Rabi’a and Other Women Mystics in Islam” (Oxford, England: Oneworld Publications, 1997). “A complete biography of this woman of unique personality did not appear until Dr. Smith, published his account, initially her dissertation. “Rabi’a, like so many of the saints, lived to a ripe old age and must have been nearly ninety when she died.” 61. Rabi’a rejected offers of marriage, preferring a celibate life. She practiced extreme austerities, rejecting offers of even the smallest material comfort. One of her devotees reported that at eighty, she had a brick for her pillow, sleeping on a mat of reeds on a dirt floor. “She was a very old woman . . . a worn-out skin almost falling down.” She was devoted to a life of prayer and sparseness. 44/45. As Robert Frager so clearly says in his wonderful introduction, “Communal prayers are visible manifestations of the doctrine that all are equal in the eyes of God, irrespective of class, social, and economic distinctions,” Essential Sufism, ed. James Fadiman & Robert Frager (Harper San Francisco, 1997), 7/8.
In Morocco? Behind their veils? Later I would see them on a Panama Canal cruise, ballroom dancing with the unctuous on-board male escorts – old, retired men unable to conceal their glee at their desirable
status and many choices. And six years later, they would become, to my delighted surprise, Speaker of the House and potential Presidential Nominee.
Several family members, including her husband and son, worked on the show, which she executive produced. “The One” had an apartment in San Francisco. Bob visited her there and all was well. But within two months, she decided she wanted to be with him all the time, to make their relationship real. So she let go of her apartment and moved her stuff to Milwaukee, into Bob’s small apartment. They broke up a few weeks later. Bob did write to me, with apologies. But his words, along with him, meant nothing to me. The last time I saw him, he was with Deanna in California.
In Nothing Special, Charlotte (“Joko”) Beck.
This is equally applicable to national politics, including the Iraq War and the US War on Terror – the nation and its populace fears annihilation (after 9/11), a fear that results in conflict -- wars. In extraordinary events, like facing the deaths of my parents and the loss of my son, I had looked directly at my fears, learning to acknowledge them and deal with them. However, these were big events, God events. Ordinary daily life was another matter, and that was up to the Great Me.
Charlotte Joko Beck, Everyday Zen: Love and Work, ed. Steve Smith (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1989). His eagerness for me to have dinner at Windows on the World, the restaurant on the top floor of the World Trade Center, struck me as a little strange. But nine months later, 9/11/2001, I would sadly understand. 2001 was a transformative year historically as well as personally. Bill, a chemist who retired at 49 from Clorox to live in Sea Ranch, worked out twice every day. He was a consummately kind man and community volunteer who drove aging or ailing residents to appointments. Jeannie, his wife, volunteered for Hospice; she walked her black Labrador, worked out, swam, played tennis, did yoga and aerobics, every day! Bill and Jeannie were close friends of my neighbors – two lovely people. The Seals moved to Sea Ranch years ago, after Ned’s third heart attack, at 48. They invited me to dinners with their friends and looked after my house when I was gone. They defined what being a good neighbor meant -- the bedrock of the self-sufficient community that is Sea Ranch.
I donate to local charities, but I am a non-volunteer. My ego was already too big for old age. I didn’t need any more achievements or accolades. But I did feel the need to help the part of the community that had no time for volunteering – Mexican immigrants, many illegal. My minimum wage is $25./hour; Patricia Agis helps me move furniture and organize the house; Griselda Ortega works with me in the garden; Rutilia Cortez painted my house; Martine Diaz mows the lawn/field, and Ricardo Estrada was the contractor for my new deck. Although this might sound subservient, the trend is clear and promising – from handyman or service jobs to entrepreneur and small business owner. Recently, the ownership of four local restaurants has been sold to Mexican residents, formerly bus boys, cooks, and waiters. We eat there frequently. These new owners still perform labor alongside their employees. But with success, they are also becoming managers. Unfortunately, there is little social mixing across these three groups, but the community lives in harmony and appreciation.
(An aside: All my life, like my mother and her mother, I had done all my own housework, including painting rooms and planting grass and trees. Housekeeping for them was both an art and a labor and hence had to be tackled alone. Now I have learned to cherish the privilege and luxury of having domestic help. I no longer exhaust myself as my mother did by trying to do everything. But I still work alongside anyone I hire; and yes, I pre-pick up and organize.)
Venerable Henepola Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain English (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1991),
2. Master Sheng-yen, Subtle Wisdom: Understanding Suffering, Cultivating Compassion Through Ch’an Buddhism (New York: Doubleday, 1999), x.
Karen Armstrong, Buddha (New York: Lipper/Penguin, 2001).
Ayya Khema, Be An Island: The Buddhist Practice of Inner Peace (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1999), Preface, xv.
As Karen Armstrong emphasizes, Buddha (Gotama) “took it for granted that family life was incompatible with the highest forms of spirituality . . . a perception shared . . . by Jesus.” (2) He left his wife and son, Rahula. Buddha also had difficulty accepting women as monks, finally relenting but granting them a subordinate status. “The Buddha’s quest was masculine in its heroism: the determined casting off of all restraints, the rejection of the domestic world and women, the solitary struggle, and the penetration of new realms are attitudes that have become emblematic of male virtue. It is only in the modern world that this attitude has been challenged. Women have sought their own liberation, they too have rejected the old authorities, and set off on their own lonely journey.” (Armstrong, 56)
Indian texts which reinterpreted the Vedas.
Buddha also used the teaching of Patanjali on yoga, which he “adapted to develop his own dhamma, or dharma.” (48) “Yogis of India had discovered the unconscious mind and had, to a degree, learned to master it.” (Armstrong, 49) “Aspirants” had to “live above the confusion of the emotions,” (Armstrong, 44) Yet the sacred, “as close to us as our own selves, proved to be extremely hard to find.” (Armstrong, 53)
In Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening (New York: Riverhead Books 1997), he writes that in his first teaching, in Deer Park shortly after his awakening, Buddha declared “how he has found the central path through avoiding indulgence and mortification. He then describes the four ennobling truths: those of anguish, its origins, its cessation, and the path leading to its cessation. Anguish can be understood, its origins let go of, its cessation realized, and the path, cultivated (4) and this is what he had just done.” Letting go begins with understanding, a “calm, clear acceptance of what is happening.” He uses the example of a wave - - if we try to avoid it, it will send us crashing into the beach. “But if we face it headon and dive right into it, we discover only water.”(7/8) He acknowledges that awakening “is indeed close by – and supreme effort is required to realize it.” (13) “It is a method to be investigated and tried out.” (18)
“The course of the Buddha’s life offers a paradigm of human existence.” (107) The tale is worth repeating. “It is said that until Siddhartha Gautama [Buddha] was in his late twenties, his father, King Suddhodana, kept him immured within palaces” (Batchelor 21), keeping anything unpleasant away from him. But the Prince became restless. During a carefully planned tour of the beautiful countryside, Siddhartha saw “a person disfigured by disease, another crippled by age, a corpse, and a wandering monk.” (Batchelor, 21/22) He left the palace and for six years studied, meditated, and “subjected himself to punishing ascetic rigors.” His body became emaciated. He had tried everything but he still was not enlightened. “Seven days later he had an awakening in which he understood the nature of anguish, let go of its origins, realized its cessation.” (Batchelor, 22)
We both were world-class players. Or should I say we were equally immature? Inevitably, I would cry, quickly becoming a martyr, which would cause even more irritation, and he would retaliate by ascribing first cause guilt to me. He would escalate into name calling, using words I hated; I would threaten the relationship, which he hated.
For more on Dr. Bedi’s extraordinary synthesis of Eastern philosophy, Jungian thought, and the resultant insights that emerged in this brilliant melding, see Path to the Soul (York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, 2000); Retire Your Family Karma (Berwick, Maine: Nicolas-Hays, 2003); and Awakening the Slumbering Goddess, copyright 2007 by Ashok Bedi, MD. I found some helpful information in Jung: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 1994) by Anthony Stevens.
That the source of motivation is sexual and that the unconscious is strictly unique and personal. Jung preferred a concept of “life force” which included sexuality. The central role of the mother as caregiver is also different from Freud’s centrality of the father – and truer to my own experience.
Jung believed that beneath the “personal unconscious of repressed wishes and traumatic memories, posited by Freud,” there lay a deeper and more significant layer he would call “the collective unconscious,” which contained “the entire heritage of mankind.” (22) These archetypes make up the unconscious – and they are “identical psychic structures common to all.” (47) For Jung, like Hinduism, we come into the world with a “blueprint for life.” (53) The Self, the Ego, the Persona, and the Shadow are different aspects of the individual. The Self is our greater, interior being; it seeks “fulfillment in spiritual achievement.” (61) The Ego, the sense of “I and “Me,” is the center of consciousness. (62) The Persona is our mask, a façade, which we fashion “to be acceptable to others,” “a shop window where we display our best wares.” (63) And our Shadow is a lower, disowned personality, like the stories of Jekyll and Hyde, or the Portrait of Dorian Gray. We keep the worst part of ourselves under wraps, not fearing castration by the father (Freudian) but rather being abandoned by the mother for not being acceptable. (66) This centrality of the mother was more in accord with my experience; fear of losing her love accompanied me throughout my life like a censor. The most painful part of analysis is confronting the shadow -- which is not surprising because the shadow is “tinged with feelings of guilt and unworthiness and with fears of rejection should its true nature be discovered or exposed.” This is precisely the way most addicts feel when they begin sobriety – unworthy, guilty, fearing rejection but meeting acceptance in AA. They begin to confront their shadow, where “so much potential and energy is locked away,” hidden within the addiction. (76) Or the addiction is the literal embodiment of the shadow. After the initial painful struggle, there is a “feeling of being more creative, more whole . . . to own one’s shadow is to become responsible for it . . . ethical choices become possible.” (67)
Dr. John Beebe is an international figure in the psychoanalytic community, an intellectual who was the editor/founder of the professional Jungian journal for many years. He is a noted scholar of, among other things, Jungian readings of films, along with his particular expertise in typologies. He did have semitrances during some of our sessions, periods when he would appear to doze off. Sometimes I was uncertain whether he was exhausted or intuiting something from my words. I was a very slow pupil, finding it difficult to comprehend things that I had repressed or buried for so long. It took months before I had any real awareness of what his words were referring to.
There are four basic types of perception and response: “Sensation (sense perception) tells us that something exists; thinking tells you what it is; feeling tells you whether it is agreeable or not; and intuition tells you when it comes and where it is going.” (In Man and His Symbols, 61) (86.) Thinking is paired with feeling (which should not be confused with emotion or affect; it is judgment, evaluation) and sensation with intuition. One of the four will be our superior function and the other of the pair our inferior function. Each of the four types is further distinguished by being either extroverted or introverted. Introverts place great “importance on inner subjective realities and extraverts on objective events.” (86) Very briefly, the four types: intuition and sensation, thinking and feeling, doubled by being either introverted or extroverted, making a total of eight psychological types.
And slowly, I am acknowledging the role certain of my actions play in upsetting him -- like interrupting him when he is on the telephone, or asking for his help without relinquishing the task myself. To me, these are small annoyances; to him they are felonies. But the reality is that they hurt him, they upset him, so I need to have empathy with his feelings, which are real. To see them as insignificant is actually insulting to him. This has come only very recently. It has involved what Dr. Beebe calls “an ethics of caring versus an ethics of justice.” Being right, along with adjudicating the severity of another’s feelings, are habits I am changing. I no longer value them as I used to. Robert Thurman, Essential Tibetan Buddhism (New Jersey: Castle Books, 1995).
Buddha “emphatically disclaimed the possession of the Godlike power of creatorhood . . . but he was not an atheist. He believed he had met a number of enlightened beings.” (10)
Like Gurumayi, Buddha again and again told his followers not to take “anything on trust.” (Armstrong 47) He urged them to test everything. Thus, Buddhism has no “theories about the creation of the universe or the existence of a Supreme Being. These matters might be interesting but they could not give a disciple enlightenment.” (Armstrong 102)
We became patrons of the Telluride Film Festival, watching wonderful films at the magnificent event every Labor Day weekend. I taught a film history course at UC-Santa Cruz, a beautiful commute from our condominium in Menlo Park. It was on the war against terror, with Iraq just beginning to gear up in the spring of 2003. But that was it for professional engagements and the movies. I had retired, with one book to finish.
“I found the revelation that I could look back upon my sixties with pleasure astonishing.” (7) I quite agree with Carolyn Heilbrun, another professor, who did not find “the joy in my grandchildren, great as it is, half so profound as the pleasure I take in my adult children. To perceive the enchantment of small children does not require the eyes of the old. To taste with special relish the conversation of one’s grownup children does . . . Perhaps because I am not a natural lover of children, the most potent reward for
parenthood I have known has been delight in my fully grown progeny. They are friends with an extra dimension of affection.” I am thrilled listening to Rob and Dae talk about their work, or politics, or their lives in general. How did they become such remarkable adults? So intelligent, so perceptive, so creative?) See Carolyn Heilbrun, The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty (New York: Dial Press, 1997). See also Writing a Woman’s Life (New York: Ballantine, 1988).
Ayya Khema, Being Nobody Going Nowhere (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1987).
See Ayya Khema, I Give You My Life: The Autobiography of a Western Buddhist Nun (Boston & London: Shambhala, 2000).
In Ayya Khema’s Be An Island, “Forward,” Sandy Boucher, 1998, ix – xiv. She spoke without notes, in a simple, accessible style. Like so many other spiritual teachers, including Baba Muktananda and Gurumayi, Khema preferred the peace of monastic life; yet she was willing to travel around the world to share her insights. In 1988, she received ordination in the Chinese Buddhist tradition, in Los Angeles. As one of her followers wrote: “Nothing could be more essentially Buddhist than spiritual equality, regardless of gender.” (xiii)
I decided early on that rather than being irritated by his quirks and habits – including a unique piercing nasal trumpeting to clear his ears -- I would accept them all (OK, with three exceptions) as part of the package. I had realized years ago that my intolerance of others’ personal traits made me anxious and unhappy and did not change anything. Jonathan tried to accept me in the same way, what he would “romantically” refer to as “taking the “rocks with the farm.” I tried to see the rocks and the farm as the same. Charlotte Beck would see the sharp rocks as jewels. This became our mutual goal. Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs, A Contemporary Guide to Awakening (New York: Riverhead Books, 1997).
Nora Gallagher, Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith (New York: Vintage, 1998).
Venerable Guntarama, Mindfulness in Plain English (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1992 (Taiwan, 1991), 4. In 2006, the Middle East beckoned. The outbreak of fighting between Israel and Lebanon in July 2006 forced cancellation.
Early Buddhist texts were written one hundred years after the Buddha’s death, in Pali, a dialect of Northern India, after being orally transmitted for many years. These are the source for much of the barely recorded history of the Buddha’s life. Theravada Buddhists preserved these early texts. The Sanskrit texts were Chinese or Tibetan. The Sanskrit “karma, dharma, and Nirvana,” become “kamma, dhamma, and Nibbana” in Pali. xxix in Karen Armstrong’s Buddha (New York: Penguin Books, 2001). This little book is a concise, accessible account of the Buddha’s life. “What is historical is the fact of the legend.” As it spread through cultures, the dharma maintained its integrity and “responded to the needs of the new situation . . . it had to imagine itself in original and unexpected ways (compare the Pali discourses, a collection of Zen koans, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead). ” 107 They were imaginative, they were not orthodoxies. Buddhism is “the freedom from anguish and the freedom to respond creatively to the anguish of the world.” 109
There were other books, the beautifully written Verses from the Center: A Buddhist Vision of the Sublime by Stephen Batchelor; Taming the Monkey Mind by Thubten Chodron, a Buddhist nun; and many books on Zen Buddhism, including three collections of the writings of the well-known Buddhist scholar, D.T. Suzuki: Introduction to Zen Buddhism, with an introduction by Carl Jung, published by Grove Press in 1964; Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D.T. Suzuki, originally published in 1956 and reissued in 1996; and The Awakening of Zen, Shambala Press in 1980.
Ayya Khema, Being Nobody Going Nowhere, 47. Through meditation, we will have fewer grandiose ideas about “one’s person.” Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs, 60.
Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (Boston & London: Shambhala, 2000). 115 Lama is a translation of the Sanskrit word, guru, and means spiritual teacher.
Co-written with Adelaide Donnelley (New York: Kodansha International, 2000).
Vicki MacKenzie, Cave in the Snow: Tenzim Palmo’s Quest for Enlightenment (Great Britain: Bloomsbury, 1998). As a young woman, she had two sides: “On the one side, I was fun loving and frivolous; and on the other I was serious and ‘spiritual.’ These two sides were at war.” (27) I so identified with this double aspect.
Francoise Pommaret, Bhutan: Himalayan Mountain Kingdom, trans. Elisabeth Booz & Howard Solverson (Hong Kong: Airphoto International, 1998). This was the first guide written about this country in 1990. In Being Nobody, Going Nowhere. Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Transforming Problems into Happiness (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2001). Thich Nhat Hanh, Anger (New York: Riverhead Books, 2001).
“Love cannot be encased in a person. A person is nothing but a bag of bones . . . How can love be embedded in that? Yet that is what the famous tragedies are all about. (38) Love is embedded in a feeling. (39) Love is more importantly cultivated when we confront someone who is totally lovable.”
Vietnam was my first CEO trip, a unique travel experience. CEO is the outgrowth of YPO, Young Presidents’ Organization, to which Jonathan belonged. This international group consists of individuals who became presidents of companies before they were forty. (At age fifty, 10% of these members are invited to join CEO.) The selection criteria for both versions are stringent, involving a nomination and election process. CEO, like YPO, sponsors numerous events, including international travel, for members and their families. This is ultimately luxurious, over-the-top travel, involving not only five star hotels and services, but first class education about the places visited. Speakers at YPO events include the leadership of countries, along with leading intellectuals on the area. Mornings are spent in class; afternoons on special tours, privileged inside glimpses into cultures, and evenings at black-tie dinners, dances, and other extravaganzas. The settings for these events will be presidential palaces, national museums, famous restaurants.
In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (New York: Times Books, 1995), Preface, XVI.
When the point of view changes, so does history. Jonathan visited the Cu-Chi tunnels, outside Ho Chi Minh City. It had originally been built during the resistance war against French colonialists, from 1945 to 1954. From 1961 to 1965, it shielded soldiers “operating in the enemy’s rear zone,” the U.S. As the war escalated, the tunnels expanded into the north. “The tunnels were not dug deep, but still were resistant to canon shells and to the heavy weight of tanks and armored cars . . . there were block-points at sensitive spots to obstruct the way of the enemy or to stop the toxic chemicals sprayed by them . . . there were sections structured from two to three stories . . . there were also narrow sections that only light and thin persons could worm their way through . . . carefully-designed shafts for fresh air connected to the surface face by multiple secret openings . Pitfalls, nail and spike traps were set at critical points of the system. Around tunnel entrances and exits were also laid nail and spike traps, land mines, as well as antitank high explosive mines . . . Inter-related to the system were broad trenches for rest after combat where hammocks could be hung up. There were reserves of weapons food, water, facilities for surgery, living quarters for wounded and convalescing combatants, shelters for women, old people and children . . . and theaters for film shows and productions. All this underground world was elaborately concealed overhead.” From the tourist pamphlet of the site. Thich Nhat Hanh: Essential Writings, “Introduction, ‘If You Want Peace, You Can Have Peace,’” by Sister Annabel Laity (Mar knoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2001), 1. Other books which have accompanied me include Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, with a foreword by the Dalai Lama (New York: Bantam, 1992); The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation, trans. Mobi Ho (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975/1987); Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames (New York: Riverhead Books, 2001) and No Death, No Fear (Riverhead Books: New York, 2002). As a novice, he learned to be present in everything he did. “While closing the door you learn to be truly present while closing the door. While cooking you are truly present in the cooking.” (4)
Master Sheng-yen, Subtle Wisdom Understanding Suffering, Cultivating Compassion Through Ch’an Buddhism (New York: Doubleday, 1999).
In Buddhist Stupas in Asia: the Shape of Perfection, Photography, Bill Wassman, Text, Joe Cummings, Foreword, Robert AF Thurman (Oakland, CA: Lonely Planet Publications, 2001).
Foreword, 5. Guidebook, 24/25 Guidebook, 22/23.
Guide book, 26/27.
Chogyam Trungpa, Great Eastern Sun: the Wisdom of Shambhala, ed. Carolyn Rose Gimian (Boston & London: Shambhala, 2001).
135 I have quoted from her second book in the previous chapter.
Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (Boston & London: Shambala, 2000); The Wisdom of No Escape: And the Path if Loving Kindness (Boston & London: Shambhala, 1991); The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times (Boston & London: Shambhala, 2001).
Wuhan was the site of Mao’s Villa.
Our driver and guide, who was a medical doctor, as was our guide in Myanmar, took us to see an historical theater in the center of town. This ruse was one of many tourists sites for “original” art, actually copies of paintings sold throughout China. Yes, we bought three pieces from fast-negotiating sellers who had taken them down and wrapped them up before we could examine them. Chinese merchants can be relentless and blithely deceitful in making the sale.
Awakened: Qin’s Terra-Cotta Army, Shaanxi Travel & Tourism Press, October 2001, 10, 11. This is the catalogue for the monument.
We stayed at the Peninsula Palace, which was just off the square, downtown, a great hotel. And we trekked through the famous knock-off malls, where Jonathan loaded up on Ralph Lauren shirts and Mont Blanc pens (100 for $50.00, after two days of hard bargaining), and I found cashmere and silk items for gifts. These warehouses must be the sources for New York city street vendors. The low prices speak of cheap labor and lots of it, primarily by women, in country villages or huge factories. And what if China ever raised their prices? We would be captive. The U.S. has given up most sources of production. What would happen to China if the US stopped shopping?
An eagerly anticipated CEO trip to the Middle East, in 2006, would be cancelled due to the U.S. War in Iraq. We were scheduled to visit Jordan, Syria, Israel, Egypt, and Turkey. We would take our granddaughters on two Disney Cruises, in January of 2006 and 2007, to our mutual delight. We would visit Jonathan’s 88 year old mother in Hawaii several times, including an early 90th birthday party, and spend time with his brother, Dave, and Kathleen – a lovely couple I have grown to love thoroughly. They will join us in Telluride, Colorado for the film festival again in September. Nancy will come and visit for the holidays, staying in the Stanford Park Hotel, right behind our condominium in Menlo Park. We will spend time in Boca Raton, Florida, with Jim and Deanna Rosemurghy, Jonathan’s cousin, who is like a brother to Jonathan, and celebrate the weddings of two of their three children, in a year. There are regular trips to New York, where we will eventually buy a condo in The Caledonia, in Chelsea, on the newly planned High Line, only three blocks away from Dae, Larry, and Remi; and visits to first Tulsa, Oklahoma and then Portland, Oregon, to enjoy Amy, Jonathan’s daughter, Brian, her husband, and our two grand children, Alessandra and Siena. We will share our weeks in our house in Hilton Head with both families in the spring of 2006 and 2007. And in Menlo Park, Rob and Priscilla keep us updated on current politics and contemporary culture. Our little expanded family is filled with people we love and care about. Jonathan and I both got so much more than we bargained for, and for which we are deeply grateful.
Venerable Henepola Gunaratana, Mindfulness in lain English (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1992), 11. First published in Taiwan, 1991.
Ayya Khema, Be an Island; The Buddhist Practice of Inner Peace (Boston, Massachusetts: Wisdom Publications, 1999). The Hershey Family Foundation sponsored the printing of this book. Venerable Henepola Gunaratana writes about meditation: “Meditation teaches you how to disentangle yourself from the thought process. It is the mental art of stepping out of your own way . . . Meditation is not other-worldly.” When we can disengage the old and tired logic circuits that have formed, almost by habit, it lets our intuition, our deep mind, emerge. (27) He talks about the difference between Hindu and Buddhist meditation, stating that Hinduism is “purely concentrative . . . Within the Buddhist tradition, concentration is also highly valued. But a new element is added . . . awareness.” (34) And there are many schools of thought . . . Vipassana is the oldest of Buddhist meditation practices.
At death, letting go is the one thing we can still do. One isn’t striving to get anything, one is striving to get rid of every thing. There is nothing to achieve. There’s only letting go.
Jonathan made the invitations on his computer, I compiled the gift baskets, which he delivered just before guests arrived. Prior to the evening dinner, I taught the teen age girls hired to serve how to properly set a table. We rented furniture, plants, and dishes in Ukiah and hired cooks for the parties, housing guests in a charming B & B on the ocean, with spectacular coastal views, near Anchor Bay. Our children and grandchildren all came, as did my sister, Nancy, her son and my nephew, Patrick, and Jonathan’s brother, Dave and his wife, Kathleen, with Kanti, Jonathan’s nephew, along with our friends in Sea Ranch and several old friends of Jonathan’s. Jonathan’s mother got out of her bed in Honolulu and onto an airplane, with two caregivers, and danced with her son. By organizing and cooking a dinner for the family, and even inviting Tom, my ex-husband; orchestrating a rehearsal dinner at the Stanford Park hotel, personally preparing a luncheon for the family tea ceremony before the wedding.
Once again, Dae had to take care of us, including my petulant sulk when the photographer spent too much time with Tom and his wife.
Dae has met Gurumayi several times and has attended many programs at the ashram, including meditation intensives. She knew the power of the Siddha path. But Rob had stayed far away. Years ago, I had obsessed about Rob meeting Gurumayi, particularly when she visited Milwaukee. He refused, no matter my wheedling and whining. It took years before I could let go of this desire. Rob has walked his own spiritual path. But it has taken even more years for me to let go of being an overprotective mother. Jonathan regularly kicks me under the dinner table as I continue to suggest items for him.
In The Way of Passion, his book on the Sufi poet, Rumi.
Ayya Khema, I Give You My Life: the Autobiography of a Western Buddhist Nun (Boston, Massachusetts: Shambala Publications, 1997), 139. Her epigraph is a poem by Hermann Hesse, Stages: “As every flower fades and as all youth
Departs, so life at every stage, So every virtue, so our grasp of truth, Blooms in its day and may not last forever. Since life may summon us at every age Be ready, heart, for parting, new endeavor, Be ready bravely and without remorse To find new light that old ties cannot give. In all beginnings dwells a magic force Or guarding us and helping us to live. . . There are three more stanzas of this delightful work. The last is particularly pertinent for this book: “Even the hour of our death may send Us speeding on to fresh and newer spaces, And life may summon us to newer races. So be it, heart: bid farewell without end.” In this endeavor, we are supported by our small, sweet AA group in Gualala, where we regularly attend meetings. (Jonathan began to attend AA in 2002, quite to my surprise.) This group of eccentrics is beloved to us. There is first and foremost our good friend, Thayer, a former TV journalist and a documentary film maker – articulate, dramatic, brilliant, and always available for service; Jim, the local dentist and comic, formerly from Marin County, who tried all the wild and crazy drugs available to his profession; Tim, the 80 year old silver haired, elegant corporate CEO, who is involved in the politics of Sea Ranch, as is his second wife, Dibby, a retired city planner running for director and the pillar of the women’s AA group; Patty, a former convict and tattooed tough drunk who is getting her appraiser’s license and raising her teenage daughters in a loving manner very different from her abusive background and former homelessness Then there is Rug, who survived radical chemotherapy, beating all the odds; Jim gave him new front teeth; and Lyle, a sewer supervisor in the local town, afflicted with emphysema and no longer able to work; Wink, all 6 feet 10 inches whose liver is ailing, and articulate Marie, with virtually no education and a history of violent abuse as a child, is gaining personal strength and making a career for herself . . . along with the food addicts who are so few they attend AA. A humble group, always a source of wisdom and compassion. We did attend one meeting of the Food Addicts – with only two other people. The secretary introduced herself six times – I’m Nita, and I’m a food addict – before she read introductory passages, standing each time she started a new item. It was very funny, and sweet.
Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (San Francisco: Harper, 1993).
While stories end, life goes on. I had one fear left – a fear of heights, particularly in small planes. Thus it should not come as a surprise that Jonathan and I began flying lessons in 2007. For him, this was the completion of a process that began in the 1960s, which became pragmatic in 2007 with the unexpected purchase of a plane. For me, it began as a one-time confrontation with fear – to see whether I would be able to fly with Jonathan; then the lessons became a mental and physical challenge. Now I am resurrecting a childhood hero, Amelia Earhart. But that’s another story! With new settings, in Mexico, and the Monterey Peninsula!
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