Tag Archive | mortality

Kuan Yin: Beyond Human

The Subject As A Younger Boy

The Subject As A Younger Boy

He’s lying in the sun, breath heavy and fast, sides shrunken, bones of the chest and neck showing through the skin, backs of the ears and the toes almost hairless now. Just an old cat suffering from age and pain and a host of ailments. “Just put him down,” people tell me especially after they hear I have to clean up his feces several times a day and live with puppy training pads on my bedroom floor because that’s the only way to keep him from urinating on the carpet.

Only one room still has carpet, in fact. He ruined all the rest so we’ve replaced it with hardwood, an oddly beautiful gift he’s given me through his feline dementia. And he still climbs onto my lap while I write, sleeps by my side at night, meets me at the door with his companion cat, who doesn’t understand why there are no wrestling matches every day.

My husband would be relieved to see him go–as I would be much of the time–but has come to understand and accept why we go on with him: not because I can’t bear to part with him but because he still has a pure enjoyment in much of life. I feel I need to respect and support that in an old cat no less than I would in any person.

Yesterday, I bought a new scratch pad laced with cat nip (which I’ve been referring to as “medical cat nip”) and he scratched and rolled and rubbed his cheek on it, then plowed through a bowl of cat food to satisfy the “munchies.” And as we ate dinner, this old arthritic boy came barreling down the hall top speed, startling his companion, and stretching his paws up onto the cat perch. This is not a cat ready to “go gently.” And I feel I need to respect that as well.

We don’t go to extraordinary measures to keep him alive. He’s off almost all medication because the drugs for one illness just make another worse. And he gets to eat the cheap grocery store cat food he loves rather than the “special diet” that is supposed to make him feel better. He’s in hospice with us. We just want to give him comfort.

I will respect his right to die when his quality of life degrades or he is in pain. But I will also respect and show compassion for his delight in life until then, this old, skinny, balding orange tiger. Even as I clean up his latest gift.

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.

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”

The Parable Series: The Tiger Below

Electric Tiger

And so the parable says:

A man is walking through the forest thinking about his past and his future, paying little attention to the trees and birds around him, when he hears a low growl behind him. Turning, he sees a large tiger bounding through the woods toward him, images of legs of lambs reflected in his eyes like a Warner Bros. cartoon. Terrified, the man begins to run, huffing his way along just ahead of the tiger (admit it: here the parable breaks down a little–could he really outrun a tiger?). At the moment when the tiger has almost caught up to him, the man comes to a cliff. So scared he doesn’t even think, he flings himself over the edge  to find that there are two vines trailing down the side and he is able to snatch onto them, one in his left hand, one in his right. As he hangs, relieved to have escaped, he thinks “Cool. All I have to do now is climb down and I’m home free.” He should know better; this is a parable, after all.

At the moment he’s about to start shimmying down, he hears another low growl, this time from below. The tiger that had been chasing him is still pacing at the top of the cliff, so it can’t be him. Sheepishly (remember the leg of lamb image) peering down, he sees another tiger, even more ferocious looking as tigers go, pacing below him, licking his chops just waiting for the man to climb down. “Oh, great” sighs the man, “I can’t go up; I can’t go down. Oh, well, at least for now I’m safe on the vines and maybe the tigers will get bored and go away.” Hands tightly gripping the vines, he relaxes enough to begin to doze, feeling safe again if not comfortable, when he hears tiny gnawing noises above him. Feeling a bit piqued at his troubles by now, the man looks up to see a black mouse chewing on the left vine and a white mouse doing the same on the right, stripping away his safe hold millimeter by millimeter. “Well, that does it. I’m doomed to be the value menu for that tiger below,” the man sobs, resting his head on the cliffside awaiting his fate.

At that moment, he sees, just within reach to his left, a slender plum branch growing out of the cliff and on it hangs one perfect, shiny purple plum. Grabbing the right vine a bit tighter, he reaches out, plucks the plum and bites into it, the sweet juices rolling down his chin. And he smiles.

And so the parable ends.

Perhaps it’s not too tough to figure out that this parable represents living in the “now,” enjoying the present moment rather than worrying about the past–the tiger of birth chasing him through the woods–or the future–the tiger of death below. But I come back time and again to the mice that represent the passage of time, the night and day, that chew away our lives in tiny pieces. Nibble: a new wrinkle appears. Nip: arthritis in our fingers draws us away from our writing. Chomp: the knee that ran a month ago now berates us on every stair.

The tiger below? Yeah, he’s going to get me, maybe sooner than I would prefer or later than I can tolerably bear. But the mice. The mice are the animals I am most afraid of, the ones that send me running to my therapist, my meditation cushion–or a cosmetic surgeon. The animals whose little needle teeth, tiny as they might be, will cause me, more than the tigers, to forget the pleasure of biting the plum.