Alive, energetic, happy, hopeful. And then the world caved in and I hunkered down in my corner as best I could, laced up my boxing gloves and prepared to take on the world. But I was still a child and no amount of armor or helmets or big gloves could protect me. I sat alone on the bench girding myself for the next fight. Alone, alone, out in the rain, cold and alone. I walked through life doing my best to pretend I was human like everyone else, but always chilled to the bone with loneliness. I was a lone operator even though I pretended with the best of them.
I was not afraid. I jumped off every new cliff, taking risks, spreading my wings and moving again and again into the unknown. And then many years in a cage. Cage of shoulds. Cage of have-tos. Cage of trying to prove myself or to myself that I was really okay. Expectations rained down on me, mine most of all. I could see out of my cage, but no one could ever come in.
And then I found that work, work soothed the savage beast. Work all the time. The little man on my shoulder always whipping me to do more, to write more, to publish more, to prove more, go, go, go he said. Go and do more. Do not stop. Do not rest. Do not sleep. Do not live. Do not take your nose off that grindstone and I listened and listened and listened and listened. Go away, I told him. Leave me alone! I would insist. But he wouldn’t leave me alone and no matter how many times I slammed the door in his face, insisting that I wanted to live another way, each time he found a way to weasel his way back into my heart. Each time he crawled back in and took up his perch atop my tender battered skin. The outside world is all that matters, he said. Don’t stop. Don’t stop at all costs.
What was I afraid of? What would be the price of silence? What would be the cost of ending the momentum, of getting off the train?
When I got cancer and spent a year sick, I lay on a pile of bones and I slept. I entered the underworld and made myself at home there. When my friend Bob Stahl sent out an email about a one-day retreat he was leading at the Santa Cruz mortuary, a Buddhist meditation on death, I emailed back right away, knowing that was the place for me to be.
We spent the day doing walking meditation around the mortuary, walking through the graveyard, walking slowly and mindfully alongside the crypts and urns and statuary. Bob showed up photos of the stages of decomposition of a body. Death is real, the pictures said. This is where we are all heading. This is where we are all going to go. I was weak and tired from chemo, gaunt and bald, as I lifted and placed my foot, step after step, my mind and heart open to the awareness of death.
People said I was nuts to go. They were horrified. Why would you want to spend the day looking at dead bodies? they said. Why do you want to spend the day walking among the dead? You have cancer, they were thinking. If you think about death, you must want to die. If you think about death, you will draw death to you. You have to think about life. You must not want to live if you are choosing to spend a day among the dead. And yet I knew I had to go.
The naysayers were wrong. I needed a place to contemplate my death. I was the one with cancer. I was the one facing death. I needed a place where it was okay to sit with that possibility, too, not just that I would get better and live, but that I would get sicker and die.
It was a lovely day. I can’t imagine one better spent. Remembering that day reminds of the underworld where I spent a year of my life, off the wheel of life, freed from the responsibilities of mother, grandmother, breadwinner, friend, community activist, teacher. Freed of the past and the future. Forced into the moment, where for so many years I had been trying to go.
I loved sleeping on those hollow, ancient skulls. For all the pain and suffering, it was a place I wanted to go. A place I still miss sometimes. Eyes closed, surrounded by bones. Now I am forced to walk in this bright, sovereign world with its demands, its schedules, its expectations and its speed. I miss the comfort of craniums and jaw bones, the open empty eye sockets giving me a place to rest my head.
And then there was the triumph of survival. The triumph and pride of emerging from the underworld. And now, the limbo time which expands and continues. The scrambled brain, the empty places inside, the hole where ambition and creativity and words used to be. The empty chambers before me.
It is a time of solitude and shadows even as I go through the motions of my busy life. Even as I teach and drive kids to school and make dinner and plans and see movies with my mother and devise curriculum and teach retreats and classes, there is the vast empty world inside. There is blank place, an empty place. This empty space does not comfort. It does not scare me. It merely is. I do not know who I am anymore and mostly, I do not care.
Sometimes I want to reach back to what used to be, but what used to be is gone. And so I look up at the clouds, I reach up to the sky, not knowing what is to be. I go through my days with the empty place inside, the little man with the whip seemingly banished forever.
Today, I am heading into five days of silence. I will drive up to the Land of Medicine Buddha for a five day retreat. Once again, I will sit in the stillness beneath the swirl of life. I will sit like a Buddha and explore the places I do not understand and cannot yet see.