Yesterday, phew!, I finished one more chapter of Kindness – the Master and His Companions – a novel inspired by the life of Silo. Here’s a piece of it, based on the story of Laura Rodriguez, “Lala” (“Liliana” in the novel), first woman in the world to win a parliamentary seat as a member of the Humanist Party. A wife and mother with a young son, she served as diputada to the Chilean Parliament from 1990 to 1992, when she died from a brain tumor at the age of 35. Here she is being interviewed by a young journalist as she is recovering from brain surgery:
Margarita held Liliana in awe. Just beginning her career as a journalist, she was only too aware of the inequities facing women in Chilean society. She saw Liliana as a role model – not only for herself and her friends, but for all Chileans and for women everywhere.
Of course she was stricken to hear of Liliana’s illness. Deciding she had to take the chance, and hoping she was not being inappropriate, she called Liliana’s office and left a message to see if she might be granted an interview. She was thrilled when Liliana herself called her back and invited her to visit her at her home the following week.
When Margarita rang the doorbell, Liliana’s husband Damien greeted her warmly and showed her into the living room. She set up her taper recorder, and it wasn’t long before Liliana came out to meet her. Walking haltingly, leaning against the wall, her left arm hanging at her side, she made her way to the couch and sat down carefully. Smiling warmly at Margarita, she thanked her for coming and without preamble launched into what she wanted to say.
“The problem,” she said, “is that the central value in this system is money. The importance of money is so deeply engrained in our society that people really believe in it, especially those in power.
“But the whole money thing is really about death. Older societies have always had their myths about death – how to overcome it, how to get to heaven. We have the myth of money, money is our religion!
“We believe money gives us life – the more money you have, the more you can buy and the more alive you feel. Think about it! The banks are our cathedrals, and the tellers are our confessors…” She chuckled. “We go to deposit part of our life, and withdraw part of our life…”
“And what about you?” Margarita asked. “How do you feel about death? Has your illness changed the way you see it?” She could hardly believe she was asking such a blunt question, but Liliana seemed completely at ease.
“Oh yes,” said Liliana. “For one thing, it’s shown me how important it is to talk about death – which we seldom do. Death is a total taboo.
“Imagine – death touches everyone. We are all going to die – not just me, everyone! Yet no one talks about it. And not talking about it generates a lot of fear. We need to talk about death – what our fears are, which of them are real fears, which are imaginary…
“Why am I afraid to die? Why don’t I want to die? Ah, because my husband will be left alone, because my child will be left alone – but that’s all a big lie! Sure, if I die my son will be sad, but he’ll overcome that. My father died when I was three and I’ve lived a full life. Same with my husband, he’ll be sad but he’ll recover, and he’ll go on living. If my death is a problem for anyone, it’s a problem for me and my projects.”
“So what is the real fear about death?”
“On one hand it’s the fear of the unknown.” Liliana spoke reflectively. “On the other there’s a real fear that you won’t be able to carry out your life project.”
“Does that frighten you?”
“I don’t feel frightened at this point. I don’t feel fear. Like I said, what I feel is a greater comprehension of the importance of this topic. How tremendously important it is to talk about death, to discuss it. It’s incredible to me that people don’t talk about it – truly!”
“Why don’t we?” Margarita had never thought about this question. Of course you didn’t talk about death – but now that she was looking at it, she had to wonder – why not?
“Because – for various reasons. We believe death means terrible pain and suffering, that you have to cry a lot when someone dies. Look how absurd that is – someone else dies and you cry! But they’re dead, they don’t feel a thing, so why cry for them? They don’t feel anything – crying for them is a lie, a hallucination. You’re crying for yourself.
And if you’re crying for yourself, if you’re suffering, you can overcome that. So why does death have to be such a big drama?”
“And your son?”
“He’s been fantastic, very helpful. Children are very wise – he sees me at ease, so he’s happy. If I were upset, it would be different. The other day he said this is the best vacation he’s ever had – sure, because a lot of people come to take him places, he has all kinds of friends over, and he feels like he’s helping when he does things like pushing my wheel chair.”
“You don’t feel sorry for yourself?”
“Can you believe it, no!” Liliana spoke with a kind of wonder. “I don’t think I’ve had one moment of self pity. Maybe I’ve been angry – like when you have an accident – I have so much to do and now I have to go through all this!
“But people misunderstand. They think it’s terrible that I can’t move my arm, that they shaved my head. But you see, I’m not my arm or my leg, or my hair – I lose my hair and I keep on being me, they operate on my breast, I’m still me.
“My goal isn’t to overcome the cancer. It’s to overcome death. To strengthen whatever is within me that makes me human, that makes me a being who’s capable of giving, capable of changing the world! If that’s who I am, death is an absurdity – it doesn’t exist.”
Stay tuned – Kindness will be published some time before my own death.
Today I discovered Emily Dickinson.
Last time I read her was at the age of twelve, when I rejected her totally and forever. It wasn’t what she said, which I did not remotely grasp – it was the way it sounded. Such sweet rhyme – it revolted me. I had been around, I knew the world was anything but sweet! Ha! I sneered, and refused to read her for the next 53 years.
Until today, when she snuck up on me. It was T’ai Chi that got me so quiet and defenseless. After finishing my morning practice, I took up one of my favorite poetry collections, Stephen Mitchell’s The Enlightened Heart, sat down at my desk, and carefully opened it at random.
And – Boo! There was Emily Dickinson!
What luck, I sighed. I read the poem anyway. And then I read it again. And again…
Finally there was nothing I could do but write this confession, and copy her words here for you:
The Brain – is wider than the Sky –
For – put them side by side –
The one the other will contain
With ease – and You – beside –
The Brain is deeper than the sea –
For – hold them – Blue to Blue –
The one the other will absorb –
As Sponges – Buckets – do –
The Brain is just the weight of God –
For – Heft them – Pound for Pound –
And they will differ – if they do –
As Syllable from Sound –
I am still reeling.
Teilhard de Chardin once said:
“Someday, after we have mastered the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love. Then, for the second time in the history of the world, we will have discovered fire.”
Fire! According to my Tibetan doctor, that’s what I need more of, since my endocrine system has been so screwed up by 65 years in this polluted, fight-or-flight roundabout. I’m working on it on several fronts.
On the physical-spiritual front, I’m taking Tibetan herbs. Today, a day of the new moon, is the day for my second white Precious Pill, a pricey silk-wrapped foul-tasting pellet containing purified essence of pearl. The pink Precious Pill, which I’m due for on the next full moon, contains gold. My kids are horrified – stuff like that can kill you! We’ll see…
Then last night I dreamed I met the second love of my life (after my sweet Jorge who abandoned me three years ago to explore the Beyond). This new guy was my age but young looking, strong and laughing with long crisp gray hair and a beard, and twinkling eyes. I was young-looking too, wearing a fetching lavender knit cap that tied under my chin. I was just about to get his phone number when I woke up. Hah! Back to match.com.
I’m also participating – if only in an admiring bystander kind of way – in the Fire Craft on third Saturdays, up at Red Bluff Park of Study and Reflection, where I go as often as possible to inhale Silo’s firey dragon’s breath of Being, the delight in life that his teachings kindle. It’s mostly the guys who like to stand out there in the freezing January air rearranging fire bricks to find the best configuration for a kiln to fire our ceramic creations. But all of us, all sexes, ages and persuasions, make stuff out of clay. We have a whole collection of children’s art – the fond bumblings of people who couldn’t care less about winning ceramics competitions but just want to see the world through their fingers, like a plant reaching out through the wet earth.
Now that I think about it, everything I love best is a way to produce the fire of life. Cooking for friends and loved ones, speaking out against corruption and stupidity, teaching nonviolence and joyful living to our teens, loving my two cats.
And there’s writing. Using words like trowels with a mind of their own to dredge up surprising images from the deeps; tossing words up in the air like playing cards to see where they fall; rubbing them together like precious stones til the sparks fly, til my heart opens just a crack, and the burning glory floods out.
I hope to keep this live wire, this golden thread, alive in my book, my novel about the life of Silo and his companions. It’s a major undertaking. The guy had so many friends – has, I should say, present tense – you can’t fool me, he’s more alive than ever, working his alchemy in our midst. Finishing this book may take me the rest of my life – but that’s ok. What greater good fortune could befall me than to tell the Master’s story? A story that floods through my life, and the lives of millions around the world, like the rising sun.
Today I have
What the sages have been trying to tell me
In the sense of prodding around
To see how I’m feeling about life
In any one moment
Is nothing but the futile attempt
To stop the flow of time,
To snatch Life out of its happy dance
And trap it,
I seem to believe
That if I could do this
It would keep me
And if I could
The great glowing world
Would die with me.
Whenever I fall into
Trying to skewer the squirming moment
On the pin of my mind
I always find that I am
On the other hand
When I’m just
(As in writing
There’s no judgment
To pin down the moment.
With what’s going on.
No rocket science,
Just the Great Good Luck
Of being alive.
Happy 2013 everyone!
I thought I’d dropped out of Christianity long ago, but yesterday, New Year’s Day, I noticed I’ve been living in Original Sin my whole life. What a shock!
I was driving home from Red Bluff, it was a beautiful evening, the sky deep blue above me, the trees black against a horizon glowing like flame. I was admiring this beauty when I suddenly noticed that I was seeing it all through a subtle film of guilt – a guilt that was definitely not part of the sky and the trees.
It was like an underlying assumption that I had done something wrong. An assumption, I saw with surprise, that I had been overlaying on reality all my life, and that had me living in a state of tension, always on guard, ready to hide.
I had never noticed the guilt before; in fact I had long congratulated myself on being relatively guilt-free. Now I was stunned to see that I had been swallowing the idea of my own guilt my whole life, just as if I believed in “original sin.”
Even more interesting, I saw that this was hooked to the concept of Right and Wrong itself, which I had endowed with the power of natural law – and now it was clear that there was nothing natural about it. Even right and wrong were nothing but a judgment I had inherited, a phantasm without substance.
These assumptions about guilt and right and wrong are still there of course, but at least I’ve seen them for what they are: the whispered incantation that the Devil has been muttering in my ear all these years!
Visiting my kids in Portland’s beautiful rainy summer, I had this thought while out walking – that it’s not how I look, but that I look…
Check out Kurt’s new poetic contribution, How is the question? He may be our sound and multi-media guy, but he can actually write as well! 🙂
At last, it’s done! I thought it would take me a couple of days to publish this expanded and illustrated version of the “Jorge Espinet Primer” – the essential stories of my husband’s life. It took me six weeks. It should actually be available as a real book on Amazon.com by June 15. Phew!
But it was time well spent. I learned a lot, which I count as preparation for the publication of my coming novel, Kindness, later this year.
And the new edition of Soft Brushes with Death is, I must say, beautiful. Especially Rafael Edwards’ cover photo – Punta de Vacas, where Jorge’s ashes were scattered in 2010, shot from some high place, looking down on luminous clouds afloat amid the dark mountains in the early morning or perhaps evening – a time when the sky was gold and soft blue-gray… The new version also contains many more stories and anecdotes, as well as 27 photographs from Jorge’s life. Check it out…
And yesterday I finished another chapter of my epic novel, Kindness – which I have finally realized is going to run into two volumes. Phew! At least that makes getting the first volume out sometime in 2012 more feasible – only nine years in the making, so far…