Hearts at Work – January 2010

Hearts at Work

—A Column by Jim Tipton

“Still alive at the end of the journey.”


Back in the mid-sixties I bought, from Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Light’s Bookstore in San Francisco, a book by Japan’s most famous poet, Matsuo Basho, titled The Narrow Road to the Far North.

Basho begins his travel diary telling us that in the spring of 1689, “Everything about me was bewitched by the travel gods, and my thoughts were no longer mine to control. The spirits of the road beckoned, and I could do no work at all.” His diary recounts his five-month journey, on foot, covering thousands of miles, through a still feudal Japan and to the remote provinces of northern Japan. In one of the most popular passages he reminds us that “every day is a journey, and the journey itself home.”

At the conclusion of The Narrow Road to the Far North, Basho writes that he indeed arrived home, “still alive at the end of the journey.” That might be the hope of most of us living here at Lakeside…to arrive “home,” “still alive at the end of the journey.”

I have also recently been rereading Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying, by Ram Dass, author of Be Here Now. Following a near fatal stroke, a massive cerebral hemorrhage with only a ten percent chance of survival, Ram Dass, barely able to speak and now wheeled around by others (“I’ve grown to love my wheelchair….”) realizes that “At nearly seventy, surrounded by people who care for and love me, I’m still learning to be here now.”

Age, he discovers, is a time when we are shifting roles, becoming wiser, finding “a happy balance between participation and retreat, remembering that while it is our duty to be of service if possible, it is also important that we prepare for our own journeys into death, through contemplation, quiet time, and deepening knowledge of ourselves.” We begin to find liberation in dependency, “Souls engaged in a sacred exchange of love and care.”

Age is also a time to more deeply be ourselves, and not be what the world has always expected us to be. Those words of Emerson I discovered in high school—“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”—are echoed in Ram Dass’s assurance that “the freedom to be inconsistent is one of old age’s greatest blessings.” He reminds himself of that by keeping close this quote by Nadine Stair, an eighty-five-years-old woman:

“If I had my life to live over, I’d like to make more mistakes next time. I’d relax. I’d limber up. I’d be sillier than I’ve been this trip. I would take fewer things seriously. I’d take more chances. I’d climb more mountains and swim more rivers. I’d eat more ice cream and less beans. I would perhaps have more troubles, but I’d have fewer imaginary ones. You see, I’m one of those people who lived sensibly and sanely, hour after hour, day after day. Oh, I’ve had my moments…and if I had it to do over again I’d have more of them. In fact I’d try to have nothing else—just moments, one after another instead of living so many years ahead of each day. I’ve been one of those persons who never goes anywhere without a thermometer, a hot water bottle, a raincoat, and a parachute. If I had it to do again I’d travel lighter than I have. If I had my life to live over, I’d start barefoot earlier in the spring, stay that way later in the fall. I’d go to more dances. I’d ride more merry-go-rounds. I’d pick more daisies. I would live each moment more.”

Ram Dass also likes to have at hand that popular poem by Jenny Joseph that begins, “When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple/With a red hat.” Jenny announces that she will make up “for the sobriety of my youth,” and wear her slippers out in the rain, and spend her pension on brandy, “And learn to spit.”

I have had the pleasure of living a life surrounded by artists and writers, eccentrics for the most part, who refuse easy conventional understandings (and likewise easy conventional relationships). This advice William Saroyan gives to writers is good for all of us:

“The most solid advice…for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell, and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”

Ojo Del Lago
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