"Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing. And when you have reached the mountaintop, then you shall begin to climb. And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance." ~ Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
My family and I are arriving at the one-year anniversary of my dear father's death. The colors are gradually returning to my world. The grass, flowers, sky, and sunsets have been moving from sepia tints to muted tones, although still somewhat anemic versions of their true hues. This past year has been different from any other time in my life. The first few months after Dad's death were especially rough. We were close and losing him left a deep hole. Gradually, that hole has been filling with joyful memories of times with him, noticing messages from Dad floating on a breeze, remembering words of encouragement to me, "Just let your imagination run wild," and seeing him in my own behaviors. Yet, there's still an underlying sadness that lingers among the nooks and crannies of my life. My passionate pursuits bring me a milder state of enjoyment and my laughter feels shallower than it used to. Perhaps, I, too, am still a somewhat anemic version of my true self.
I often look to Dad for guidance about coping with such loss. He lost both of his parents before I was born. In spite of this, Dad appeared to embrace life, enjoying even the smallest of gifts. For example, I remember how he used to keep wrapped presents on his nightstand for several days after receiving them. He would then only open one gift per day. I used to become impatient, wanting to watch him rip the wrapping off of all of his presents and to see the joy in his face when he saw what we bought him. Dad once told me that the joy was in every step of receiving gifts -- from the moment they were put into his hands, looking at the wrapped presents sitting on his nightstand, wondering what was inside, to the unwrapping, and then finally using the gifts. I wonder if this was a remnant of his childhood during the depression, when rather than receiving pretty wrapped packages as a little boy, he frequently found his most prized possessions out on the street upon arriving home from school. He and his parents were evicted several times from apartments around Brighton Beach because of their inability to pay the rent on time.
In many ways, I see Dad like a 1940s movie character, speaking with lines such as, "I'm gonna get some shut eye," and living his life in a romantic style. He walked with his hat tilted to one side and danced gracefully across the dance floor with my mom. Dad would sip a glass of wine or share a cold mug of beer with Mom, while listening to a jazz musician or a string quartet in the lounge of a fancy hotel. He would tap his foot to the music, nodding his head, eyes closed, allowing himself to become part of the music. Although he was in many ways like a character in an old movie, his life was not lived in black and white, but in full color, surrounded by vibrant original paintings he and Mom fell in love with, wearing colorful t-shirts with works of art silk-screened on them or tie-dyed in the colors of the rainbow.
Perhaps, most of all, he savored the small things in life. Dad loved that first sip of his hot coffee on a cold morning and his first sip of a cold beer on a hot afternoon, often not finishing either of them to their end. He got what he wanted from that first satisfying mouth full. In his later years, Dad enjoyed sitting in his spot on the couch, listening to his favorite pieces of music, string quartets, classical vocalists, symphonies, jazz, or swing. He meditated on the music for hours at a time, appreciating every instrument, every voice, every line of the music, every delicious sip. Those images are burned into my mind and are what I turn to for comfort since his passing.
Further, on the heels of this auspicious anniversary of such a monumental loss, I've recently learned that two people from my past are very ill. This has served as a stark reminder for me that tomorrow is not promised to any of us. And it's a wake-up call to fully appreciate every moment of my life, to love more deeply, with more forgiveness and appreciation, and to allow myself to become more immersed in what I feel passionate about, rather than the content of the drama going on in the world around us.
Death is one of the immutable givens of life. As Dr. David Richo wrote in his book, The Five Things We Cannot Change, "Everything changes and ends." Everything. The Buddha based his teachings on finding peace in spite of the four sufferings of life, as he referred to them, which include birth, illness, old age, and death. Every now and then, I have a moment when I feel totally and completely at peace, in spite of the suffering of loss. I try to grasp that moment and hold onto it, but it slips away like grasping at a dream. I feel optimistic, though, because these moments come more frequently and last a little longer each time. It feels like a piece of my soul has reached out beyond the limited space of my body and the four walls around me, to connect to a universal knowing of peace. In fact, the spiritual masters have been teaching for millennia that this eternal knowing of peace lives within us. To access it, we need only quiet our mind of all of the external stories and be in the present moment.
When I look to my dad to understand how to live life with gusto, his appreciation for those everyday moments seems to be where the key to happiness resided within him, and it can be the key for me -- and perhaps, for all of us. Yet, I often find myself in a constant battle with the urge to get caught up in nonsensical drama, which likely serves as a distraction from grief and loss. However, I know that this is not the way to peace. I work at calming my anxiety about what's happening in the world. Ironically, this is also one of the ways that Dad lives through me. When he wasn't enjoying the moment, he was often fretting about the state of the world.
I was reminded of this as I wrote my last blog, Ten Tips for Staying Positive in the Midst of Negative News Cycles. In two of the tips, Take a Bad News Break and Relax, I suggested turning off technology and taking a break from bad news. "Healer, heal thyself," as they say. I haven't been very good about taking my own advice. As I mentioned in that blog, I'm a bit of a news-junkie. The result is that I've often become easily sucked into debates that quickly turn quite nasty. I keep telling myself, "This is it. No more debates. Stay off social media." Yet, I go back to it. With each keystroke of the computer, each swipe of the smartphone screen, each time I respond to a negative rant, that feeling of peace gets harder to grasp.
The ego thrives on proving our rightness. But, the momentary thrill of winning an argument, if that actually happens, is just that: momentary. It doesn't bring joyfulness within, nor does it bring peace to the world. It serves, instead, to increase our grief and separation from each other. Even more importantly, it serves to increase our separation from ourselves. It eats at our time and takes away from our energy to follow our passions, or find our passions, or to help our neighbors. Many arguments are based on a false belief that things are black and white, while the world, in actuality, rarely functions in a state of black and white. Most of what we encounter is filled with various nuances and shades of gray. But, gray doesn't feel secure, it's the unknown, and we grasp for black and white, making ourselves right and the other wrong, causing more distance and pain.
If we're willing to accept the many shades of gray we encounter throughout the moments of our lives, throughout the happenings in the world, in our discussions with others, and even in our own grief, we are more likely find ourselves feeling a deeper connection to others and with life. By embracing the grays of the journey, past the "rightness" and "wrongness," through the ups and downs, the flavorful sips of what life gives us, even the losses -- that is how we find the effervescent colors that are hiding in our connection to a universal peace. To find it, we need only to allow life to be as it is, moment by moment, breath by breath, sip by sip -- letting the drama just be.
And as the Sufi poet, Rumi said, "Out beyond the ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I'll meet you there."