Friday, March 2, 2007

Aging... and Dying!

I had a bit of a shock last night when a long-time friend came over for dinner with her daughter. She's one of those friends we don't see nearly often enough, and when we do it's always a joy and we sit around wondering why we don't see each other more often... Well, we happen to have first met when she was a student of mine at the University of Southern California, and she reminded me that it was forty years ago. Forty years! Well, actually, not quite forty. Thirty-eight. But it seemed suddenly like both a very long time and a very short time all at once. You know the feeling. Forty years! So much had happened in our lives in all that time, and yet it seemed gone in a flash.

So that was the shock. And with it, of course, came the awareness of aging. I do not look the same as I did forty years ago. What was once dark brown is now silver-grey. The brow that once was a barely wrinkled is now scored heavily with lines. The same with the face. Flesh sags where it was once resilient. What once was trim and tight now bulges over the belt. And the various organs no longer function as smoothly as they once did. That's the naked truth.

Ah, and the same day, the same evening, comes news of several high school students killed in a tornado in Alabama. And this morning, news of a bus that crashed through a freeway bridge, killing more young people in Ohio. And--this thought may be lacking in originality, but it bears thinking anyway--I marvel that I have been permitted to live this long, while others, young people, children even, lose their lives before they even reach maturity. This morning, if compassion can do anything to help, I send it to those families. May they in due time find healing from their grief.

One of the teachers I have worked with along this path toward Buddhism required me to meditate each day for several weeks on the various ways in which my life might be snatched from me without warning, and to visualize in exquisite detail how it might occur. It did not take a great effort of the imagination to come up with a virtually endless supply of dreadful deaths, and the exercise proved a useful lesson in coming to the realization--at gut level, not merely in the brain--that the life I'm given is not endless, and cannot be taken for granted. The learning is to make no assumptions and to be ready for death at any moment. There is no guarantee that this morning will not be the last.

While this practice may sound morbid, it is actually quite liberating once you get past the initial impulse of denial. It may also prove to have some practical benefits. While we may not have tornados here in California, we do have earthquakes--and we certainly have traffic. I would like to think that the moment of my death will not be one of unbridled fury at the truck driver who causes it! Much better to make that last transition not in anger but serenity.


carly said...

P: Thinking back two entries, I wonder if the 'artist' who killed the rat would have gotten any attention if he only pictured killing, only represented killing. I think he calculated he wouldn't.

His outrage sparked outrage. Two different subjects of outrage. The mechanism, his outrage was itself an outrage, but one which subverted the subject of his expression by overshadowing it.

That whole thing speaks volumes about people. What bothers them and what doesn't. To what degree they will engage. What logic, reasoning, and emotions they will employ. The depth and breadth of contention. The stultifying weight of contentiousness, the pervasiveness of it, and the divertive effects of it.

Your theme of outrage in art is very in tune, in a time when so many people are outraged by so many others and so vehemently single-minded in their contentiousness.

It says to me what we have been witnessing since Dada came on the scene, if you outrage people, press their buttons, if you play games with people, you stand a chance of being noticed. If you speak of something mild you don't.

What are your Buddhist thoughts on that?

Fred said...

Great post, Peter. Thanks.

carly said...

P: Lee's father, who suffered for years with kidney and dialysis problems and other ailments. was sitting at my table looking shot. He said to me in a tired worn out voice, "Don't get old".

I thought, I don't plan to but it's going to happen. His little humor woke me up, bigtime. I was already tuned to getting old graciously. But in that minute, I found extra determination, above all, to do everything possible not to get sick, but just die quickly and naturally. New rules.

My mother committed suicide by not eating properly. Some give up on little stuff when they age, little things like eating fish often.

By the way, that psychic I spoke of, of which you never reply (don't believe in them?) made a few predictions that are still coming. One was, as she looked at me very seriously, "You are going to grow to be very old." Trouble is I won't be able to verify that prediction until it's too late.

Oops! lunch, must go stir fry some vegetables. How I love beets and garlic with ginger sauce.

PK said...

Went into my pictures, got out my favorite one, from the '80's, went into the b.r. mirror and took a look...YIKES!!! You were right ;D! I'm getting old, wrinkle by wrinkle, hair by hair! And the 'sands' have shifted Good grief, how did that happen so quickly, guess I wasn't watching very well... My oldest Son called here about 3 weeks ago, [raised them all to speek openly] he said he wanted to come home to see me before I died.. LOL! I told him not to get happy yet, I'm still on a move and not planning my demise any time soon lol. I had to laugh at him. He lives in Bama, so it would be a major trip for him. Told him to save his money. I've also gone through the gambit of how my demise might happen, funny that. The only good one I could come up with is just to fall asleep some night, or afternoon, and be elsewhere when I come to. But then that is the one we all would like to have I'm sure. Not having anyone come back to let me know one way or the other what will happen, it will be a surprise... oh joy:). So I don't worry over it, haven't for about 15 years now, took a large load of my shoulders... especially since I have no say in it:D. Have a wonder filled day Peter...

PeterAtLarge said...

Carly, my Buddhist thought is that it's very sad that this should be the case. I read Maureen Dowd's column in today's NYT, where she belittles Barack Obama for being too meek. I guess she thinks you can't win an election without having the "right hook" she mentions in her title. It's true that the dreadful things we do attract more attention than the small blessings. Even so, the Buddhist chooses the non-violent, non-aggressive path. Cheers, PaL