Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Promises, empty, empty promises

There is a clearing near a river in the jungle which gets smaller each passing year. In the middle of this clearing is a marvelous tree which has the most beautiful flowers. Every day the flowers are more beautiful than the flowers were the day before.

Once there was a village where this clearing is now. It is far away from other villages. The people who lived there were slower, less fleet of foot, than other people. Most had made their way to this remote place and stayed because when you are slow-footed in a village of the swift the neighbours avert their eyes when you pass, and even your family suffers shame.

The villagers had gathered in that particular place because of a plain and very unremarkable tree that grew on the riverbank. It wasn't particularly tall, it didn't have lovely flowers or beautiful foliage, but it bore fruit year-round, day in and day out. It wasn't exciting fruit. It wasn't sweet, or spicy. It was bland, it was hard to peel, stringy and sometimes tough to digest, but it was nourishing and gave you strength to keep the jungle at bay. They didn't know what kind of tree it was, so they called it the gwehdee tree - the meal tree.

The villagers foraged for food in the surrounding jungle. Sometimes it was plentiful, usually it was scarce and you had to fight the monkeys and jungle pigs for it. But whatever the season they could depend on the gwehdee tree. Year in and year out it stood at the edge of the river bearing fruit. When the jungle provided not- quite-enough or when the jungle provided nothing; when every belly was empty as a drum, the villagers could always go to the gwehdee tree, lift a leaf and the food they needed would be at their fingertips. The tree was so dependable that it simply became part of the background.

Generations came and went... all as slow-footed as their forefathers had been. One day, after many years, another tree grew up, right in the centre of the village. It was a beautiful tree, with a graceful trunk and delicately beautiful leaves. Its flowers were simply magnificent. The entire village gathered around to admire it and speculate about what wonderful fruit was sure to come from such bewitching blossoms.

Through the weeks and months the flowers came, each one more beautiful and delightfully fragrant than the one before, but not a single flower ever produced a fruit. Once in a while a small green fruit would follow a flower, but within a few days it would shrivel, blacken and fall to the ground. But still the villagers were mesmerized by the beauty of the tree, and every day they sat around it and waited - certain that wonderful, delicious fruit would soon appear.

"I imagine it will taste like honey," one said to the other. "Oh," replied the next, "like honey with mango and peaches and jasmine, all together. We will certainly swoon with delight from the flavour." "The texture will be like the freshest date, as soft as green coconut," said another. "And we will be able to eat the peel!" cackled a toothless old woman, who was tired of a lifetime of peeling gwehdee fruit.

And so into the night they'd invent ever more fantastic flavours, textures, fragrances and attributes the fabulous fruit would surely have, when it ripened. And then they would go home with their growling, empty bellies and curse while eating roasted lizards and the stringy, bland and hard to digest but nourishing fruit of the gwehdee tree.

Meanwhile, at the edge of the village, the river had changed course. The gwehdee tree loved water more than almost anything, but the water the tree depended on had moved away. The tree grew thirsty, and longed for a pail or two of water from the river it could see glistening a hundred feet beyond its reach. But it was the fat season and fruit in the jungle was plentiful, so no one came to the gwehdee tree except some men who passed and remarked how ugly it was, compared to the beautiful tree in the centre of the village.

The heat shimmered above the river. Insects buzzed up and down on errands and little fish leaped from the water as they played tag with their hundreds of brothers and sisters. The river wandered even farther away. The gwehdee tree ached for water. The dryness burned in its leaves and rootlets. The pain crept down the stems and up the roots. Ever so slowly its inconspicuous flowers shriveled and fewer and fewer fruit formed under the shelter of the leaves. Still, no one noticed until one morning when a villager felt too ill to forage in the jungle and went to the gwehdee tree to gather some fruit and - there was none to gather.

Alarmed, the villagers ran to the gwehdee tree, but it was too late. The tree was dead. As the season turned from fat to lean and food in the jungle became scarce the villagers had little nourishment. Without the strength the gwehdee tree provided they were soon at the mercy of the jungle itself, which cares as little for the slow-footed as it does for the baby monkey who becomes the python's meal.

One by one the villagers disappeared. The little huts quickly fell into the mouths of the ants and termites and the waddling mother rat who carries away your best cloth as a nest for her young. It hardly mattered. There was no one left to care.

But even now in the centre of a rapidly closing clearing grows a lovely tree, with magnificent flowers, which will hold you spellbound with their promise...

Saturday, August 25, 2012

And the seasons slowly…

In May the apple trees blossomed,

In August the crabapples glow.

The hail ate most of our flowers,

Put divots in the Zen garden's moss,

But here and there, spared a small rose.

Friday, August 24, 2012

I hope there is a cure for that

A long-time friend moved recently. She wrote yesterday, relating that she'd found an excellent paediatrician for her daughter, who has a genetic illness, and that her son's second year of college has begun well.

She wrote, "Overall, things have worked out well, though I keep waiting for something bad to happen. I have turned into a pessimist. I hope there is a cure for that." 

When you think about it, pessimism is used as kind of like a talisman in our culture, "Don't get too happy, or too comfortable or too confident, or too anything joyful whatsover, because it can end in a second!" 

Relentless gurus churn out dozens of number one best selling books every year, all promising the secret to everlasting happiness and peace. But even they come at you with the not-so-veiled message that the reason you have to grab that inner peace, seize the day, or live the moment is because the sky could fall on you at any moment! Like if you don't seize each moment and wrestle it to the ground like it was a Texas longhorn steer something bad might happen!!!   We pretend, no let's call it what it is; we have this superstition that pessimism and anxiety are a shield that will protect us from the falling sky.

When my father died unexpectedly I was unable to make the very long trip to his funeral. Although I knew rationally that it didn't make any difference to Dad it meant I never said a proper goodbye to him and that's a grief that has never completely resolved. But that grief manifested in a strange way.

Dad died in late November. For Mother's Day the next April the boys asked, "What do you want?" and I said, "I want a kitten." And so a grey and white five-week old kitten whose short legs and fat little body made him look like a furry caterpillar came into my life. He was a clown in a cat suit and he lived almost 18 years, but from the day he arrived until the day we had to ease his old body off to sleep, every time I held him and looked at him I felt anxious about losing him. That anxiety kept me from enjoying him as much as I should have. Every time he squeaked I panicked. It's as if I felt my anxiety could protect him, and me from the pain of parting. It did not.

There's a Zen story which says that anxiety makes no sense, regardless of circumstances. I haven't mastered this anxiety-free life so at the moment it's purely conceptual but it interests me. 

“There is a woman running away from tigers. She runs and runs and the tigers are getting closer and closer. When she comes to the edge of a cliff, she sees some vines there, so she climbs down and holds on to the vines. Looking down, she sees that there are tigers below her as well. She then notices that a mouse is gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries close to her, growing out of a clump of grass. She looks up and she looks down. She looks at the mouse. Then she just takes a strawberry, puts it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly. Tigers above, tigers below. This is actually the predicament that we are always in, in terms of our birth and death. Each moment is just what it is. It might be the only moment of our life; it might be the only strawberry we’ll ever eat. We could get depressed about it, or we could finally appreciate it and delight in the preciousness of every single moment of our life.” ~ Pema Chödrön, The Wisdom of No Escape: How to Love Yourself and Your World  

Monday, August 20, 2012

Open or Closed?

It's been my observation over the years that people do one of two things as they age, they either relax and become more open to new people and experiences, or they grow ever more fearful of change, narrow-minded and set in their ways.

We've led a gypsy's existence for all of our 47 years together. I think this last move was our 36th, and as a child I attended 16 different elementary schools. Moving was always an adventure, a new beginning waiting just over the horizon. So I was astonished and appalled when this last move unsettled me and left me depressed and heartsick. I've never in my life suffered from depression before.

Yes, we left a beautiful location where we only had to step outside the door to be in the heart of nature, yes we left friends we had come to love, and I loved our little RV, but we have a lovely and much more comfortable and convenient home here. We have our paintings and books and treasured pieces of heirloom furniture - but it still doesn't feel like "home", and I don't know why.

Or perhaps I do. Somewhere between that move in early 2008 and the one in 2011 my adaptability clock crossed that line into age. The "open up" or "close down" clock kicked in, and left me a bit at sea as to what to do about it.

It's a challenge to work with (and resist) this pull toward negativity. Oddly enough this feeling of displacement in the condo is the only place where I'm experiencing it. I love living in this end of town, where probably 75% of the people are immigrants and we are surrounded by people of colour, other religions and other cultures. It's vibrant and vital and makes me feel as if the world itself was at my doorstep.

At the same time I'm having wonderful conversations with our sons, who are both going through periods of exponential growth. What joy it is to see your children grow in their awareness of the world around them, and realizing their potential for good. They are so different in personality from me. Both are blessed with their father's gentle temperament. Both have such wisdom and are far more skillful at dealing with others than I have ever been.

The body ages. Despite advertising to the contrary I will never look (or feel) 22 (or even 62) again. I have annoying periods of aphasia, when I can't recall the exact word I want to use. I may not be able to fight these off. But I will not secede to the "old, narrow-minded and set-in-her-ways" demon. Whatever incantation it takes to ward off that particular evil spirit will become my mantra.

Man stands in his own shadow

and wonders why it is dark.

~ Zen Proverb