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Re-Versing Time

20111229-224052.jpgWe did a lot of “Om”-ing back in the ’70s. Meditation was practically a competitive sport. We’d sit Lotus position, eyes only half closed so we could sneak looks at those around us. “How does she get her foot that high on her damn thigh?” “Oh, c’mon, look at the math geek–half lotus, how sad.” Not only did we not empty our minds, we practically hoarded, adding as many random thoughts as we could cram in. Forget about “gently bringing the puppy back”; we might as well have been at a dog park.

I was a Lit major then. But we all were, weren’t we? Literature or Philosophy:  two perfect majors for those who believed a decent salary was a tool of the Devil. I prefer to think I naively believed I could make a living wage teaching Jane Austen under an oak tree–but that life is truly another story and this story rolled together in that most basic of beliefs: Everything Changes.

What struck me recently is that I might have had some sense of the value meditation would bring as I aged, even as I played it like a varsity sport, when I read a collection of Louis MacNeice poems. I loved MacNeice in college, especially “BagPipe Music.” And when I reread it, I thought: “Yes, maybe I wasn’t totally clueless about the depth meditation can bring to life.”

“Bagpipe Music”: The title says nothing about the content but everything about the lope of the poem from line to line, the bouncing repetition whose gentle lilt hides the darkness of the lines caught in opening couplet:

‘It’s no go the merrygoround, it’s no go the rickshaw,

All we want is a limousine and a ticket for the peepshow.’

And in the last two lines, after much ill omen and ill will and images of young urbanites trying to outrun their fate, I might have first wrapped my brain–as a young urbanite trying to outrun my fate–around the importance of the “now.”

‘The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall forever,

But if you break the bloody glass you won’t hold up the weather.’

Yup, Everything Changes and you can’t stop it so…

Which led me to my other favorite poem from college and one that I chose as a reading at my third wedding–when I was older, hopefully wiser, and had finally ditched the Philosophy majors: Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.”

Put two of its most resonant lines with that last couplet of MacNeice and there it is: Mindfulness; Everything changes; Be Here Now.

‘The grave’s a fine and private place

But none, I think, do there embrace.’

My Lotus position was never that great anyway.

The Parable Series: Where Are My Damn Keys?

Public Domain Sketch

Public Domain Sketch

And so the parable goes:

There was a very wealthy man who kept all his money, jewels and gold locked inside a box inside his mansion. One late night, he wanted to go count his loot but couldn’t remember where he left the keys. “I know I had them in my house last I looked but I can’t remember where I put them. Now where could they be?” (Note that he did remember what a key was just not where it was–not a dementia tale here.) The house was quite dark, the fires already having been drawn down for the night, but outside the street lamp was still lit. So the man went outside and began searching and searching under the street light becoming more and more agitated as he looked. A friend saw him and came up, saying “What are you doing, old friend?” And the wealthy man answered “Looking for the keys to my treasure box. I can’t find them anywhere.” The friend began to search with him, both looking everywhere under the street light but finding nothing. At last the friend said, “I can’t see them anywhere! Do you remember exactly where you last saw them?” And the wealthy but keyless–and clueless–man replied, “Oh, yes, they were in my house. But it’s so much easier to look out here where there is such bright light!”

And so the parable ends.

Easy one, right? When I first read this parable, I felt slightly insulted to be presented such a simple puzzle. Well, of course, it means that we shouldn’t be looking for answers in the outside world just because that is easier. We must look only within for the key to the meanings and treasures of life.

Or should we? If that’s all the parable means, I think I have just cause to cry foul, because can all answers really come from within? Of course, many times I find myself reaching for the easy solution or quick fix that the latest diet guru or purple pill might provide when I know that this probably isn’t going to  mean I’ll become rich and skinny–or poor but enlightened. And introspection and meditation certainly have given me far more insight (by definition!) than self-help books.

But what about that friend? I keep coming back to him, the man willing to help our buddy under the street light. Didn’t he play an important role as well? Wasn’t his willingness to stop and take time ultimately likely to help the wealthy man “see the light”? I can imagine the next scene of the parable being the friend saying, “well, then, let’s not waste time out here. C’mon, I’ll grab a flashlight and we’ll go inside and look for the keys where you think you saw them last in the house, old buddy.”

Of course, looking for the easy answer outside won’t lead me to my deep treasures. But I’ll be better off with a friend with a torch than alone in the darkness looking only inward.

Age and Ache

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When I was young, if I was young, I believed the lies about how age creeps up on you, setting in like a fog, oozing into your pores a bit at a time. I also believed Sandburg when he said that the fog comes in quietly “on little cat’s feet.” Well, neither the fog not the fog of age comes on  quietly, not creeping, not oozing.

No, age leaps from hiding in the innocent branch of the willow and rips out the throat of your youth, fierce tiger, not gentle kitten. While I waited for the tiny lines, each signaling some new wisdom, the tiger raked its claws across my forehead in the night leaving deep gullies and yet no new wisdom. One morning, your skin is soft; the next hard and dull. As you dance one night away in heels and silk, you have no prescience that by morning your feet will only tolerate flats and that the bulky cotton sweater you saved from your last husband will now become your daily uniform.

I was going to be a star. I would write a vibrant dissertation that would astound my profs. Or find my voice at last and sing blues in smoky taverns. Maybe Christie-like disappear into Egypt to dig dinosaur bones. Age had other ideas. While I painted myself as the Renaissance Man, moving from dabbling first at academia, then at business, then on again like a bored but broke Gatsby, I missed that really I just wasn’t meant to be the star. While refusing to settle down, I settled sideways, never up.

There would always be time.

The tiger had other ideas.

No wiser, just older.

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;

Am an attendant lord, one that will do

To swell a progress, start a scene or two,

Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,

Deferential, glad to be of use,

Politic, cautious, and meticulous;

Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;

At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—

Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow old … I grow old …

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?

I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.

 

T. S. Eliot “Prufrock”

“Nothing Special”

Snow on Mountain

“I have been there and come back.

It was nothing special:

The river at high tide,

The mountain veiled by misty rain”

                                                                        Zen Buddhist saying

Beauty returns most fully when I stop looking for something higher. When the remaining grey snow piles blink at me as if to say “what are we still doing here on March 28?,” I hesitate in my gnarling about their ugliness and see they are as at sea as I. And the two cranes that flew over my car as I tried to hustle home on the always-too-crowded and frighteningly fast highway reminded me to breathe, reminded me that their path might be straighter and less crowded but their return home no less important.

In the study of Qi Gong and the Tao, I have never felt even close to knowledgeable, so I deftly if dumbly escaped thinking of myself as a “Great Expert,” as Ken Cohen refers to the first stage of learning–that in which you know a little so, therefore, you feel you know it all. I skipped straight to “Banana Head,” that phase where you realize that, as he says, “knowledge is limitless and human life is limited.” I know I don’t know.

What I have started to feel are moments within my ignorance, that I begin to catch sight out of the corner of an eye, tiny glinting sparks of the final stage of learning, the stage where all nature is once again part of you and you, part of nature, so that all entwines and all becomes so special that it is “nothing special.”

May I never reach that stage fully for I know I would then be a “Great Expert” and I might not see the inch long tree frogs under the birdbath who are so special that they are “nothing special.”