Tonight's game was inspired by the koans: "Save the person who jumped off the ninety eighth story of the world Trade Center" and "Make the Twin Towers stand up again". No one knew that ahead of time, of course. Except me. Thats because I am sneaky.
We sat Zazen. At the 15 minute mark, I spoke into the room
“There is someone, or something, in your life that you wanted to save, but could not.” Then I invited people to “Notice how it feels to hold them. Notice what it is like to want to save them. Notice your failure”.
T recalled her husband, and spoke of wanting to save him from his alcoholism. She spoke about the pain and the longing to see him relieved of the burden and the frustration that she could not save him.
L had many thought bubble up. She recalled watching her house burn and all of her letters and memories with it. But she said, the memory that came to sit with her was of June grass and springtime out a classroom window and wanting to hold onto that.
C told of him mother. A brilliant woman, a screen writer, she fought an 8 year battle with dementia and Alzheimer’s. C talked about the house where he was raised, and how a care taker allowed his mother to live there, comfortably. He and his wife would visit regularly. His mother recognized few people, but did, after some time, remember C. C was named her conservator and made sure his mother was cared for. One year, worn down from visits and caring, C and his wife decided to go down the week after his Mother’s birthday to celebrate with her. A person with Alzheimer’s cannot be expected to tell the difference, and C and his family were exhausted. She passed away that say, and C carries a fear that in a moment of clarity, she knew that she was alone on her Birthday, dying without her son.
A remembered his college roommate. Truly a bright kid, but unable, or unwilling, to make the leap to college. He struggled with his grades, with his professors, with fitting in. Ultimately, he dropped out of school and A was left wondering if he had done enough.
I remembered my nana. She lived 92 years. She was a formidable woman, and an inspiration, mentor, and idol for me, growing up. She was a brilliant woman, family legend says she was the first woman admitted to Oxford (she didn’t go and who knows, perhaps there is speculation on their part), but my memories of her are of being thoughtful, and educated on every subject. She never lost her composure and was always on balance.
In the weaning months of her life, she suffered from severe and quickly increasing, senior onset dementia. It was harrowing, for me, to see the woman I loved stripped of that thing so dear to her. It seemed such an unfair result to such a wonderful life. Surely being amazing prevented you from such things. She was paranoid, and made little sense. I remember her asking me one night if I too saw the Chinese people hiding in the hills. I lied to her and said yes, so she might not feel crazy. I remember seeing her cry. I averted my gaze. It seemed profane.
As I sat the memory that came to me was of her in the senior living facility in which she was ultimately and painfully committed, in her institutional pink room, with an impossible crumb clinging to her lip. The Nana I knew would have been mortified to have food clinging to her face, and I was paralyzed and unable to let her know. I rejected the crumb and my Nana and the illness, and sat there in disbelief.
As I sat, I started to cry. I remember being so angry at the doctors, angry at myself that I could prevent this. This humbling of a woman, this degradation of idolization. I remember my Nana, surrounded by jello and fake flowers, meekly complaining that she couldn’t get a decent cup of tea, and I cried because I couldn’t give that to her. Tea.
I held her there, crumb on lip, weak tea, and felt the desire to save her from that. I realized how I was trying to save me from that, from seeing my memories tarnished, from feeling powerless and scared. I sat with that.
After we had all spoken once, we sat again for 5 minutes. This time, after we had settled in, I asked:
“Hold that person, that you wanted to save, but could not. Now bring them back”
Yikes. What a difference.
I was completely caught off guard. I expected a lot of things, but all I got was drinking weak tea and geeing a crumb on my face, while my grandson looked on with a strange look on his face. Then it was all perfect, and my Nana’s death was perfect and her dementia was perfect and dignified and I remember how her sweaters smelled and the sound of windchimes on her porch.
T expressed that she realized that her husband’s battle was perfect too. That she would not change a thing.
L seemed really emotional. She mentioned that she realized how hard she worked at keeping good memories and not looking at the hard ones, or for them, or inviting them to sit in her lap.
E, who joined us, sketched the most beautiful memory of her friend, who had taken her life, her face filing E’s consciousness, hair blowing, and laughter.
C remembered the perfection of his mother’s death. Of that day. And holding it now, just right.
A tried to imagine his roommate, playing beer pong, going to classes, and wearing a college t-shirt. He mentioned that it didn’t seem right, and that for whatever reason, leaving his roommate alone seemed right and leaving everything where it was, right.
Thank you all. What a night.
(as always, my mind carries only a shadow on a cave wall. Please, if you would, add to the comments your experience)
“A Course on Koans” is the delusion-riddled work of Chris Kufu (“Wind in the Void”) Wilson, who began practicing Zen in 1967. He regards Taizan Maezumi, Robert Aitken, and David Weinstein as his root teachers. Each of them pecked at his shell until he “completed” the never-ending koan curriculum of the Harada-Yasutani lineage.
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