Ashes to Ashes: On the Terror and Beauty of Life (with a Brief Tribute to Maurice Sendak)

This post is based upon a Dharma Talk I gave tonight, our last at “Waldo,” as our practice space at First Church in Boston has been known.


Zhimen’s  Lotus Blossom (Case 21 in The Blue Cliff Record)


A monk asked Zhimen, “When the lotus hasn’t emerged from the water, what is that?”

Zhimen replied, “Lotus flower.”

“After it emerges from the water, what is that?”

“Lotus petals,” replied Zhimen.


I traveled much too much last year, and that alone wore me down.


A few weeks after I returned from a crazy, 12-day trip around the world last May that included a stop in China, however, I also started having serious health problems.


It began with three, 48-hour bouts of severe flu-like illnesses, spaced about 10 days apart.  I was completely bedridden during the first two of these periods.  I had a high fever, and I was borderline unconscious, and mildly delirious when I wasn’t completely passed out.  I really only remember what seems like 10 minutes of the first episode, which was here in Boston.  I remember a bit more of the second, which was in a hotel room in Paris, but I don’t remember much.


I was in a hotel room in Stockholm, Sweden, and on an overnight ferry from Stockholm to Talin, Estonia, during the third episode.  It was slightly less severe, and so I was more conscious.  That wasn’t a good thing, because the experience was nearly intolerable.


I began having terribly debilitating gastrointestinal problems after the first episode.  (I’ll spare you the disgusting details.)  I lost 10 pounds in a couple of weeks.  I had other awful symptoms, some persistent, like extreme fatigue, muscle weakness, and gushing eyes at night, and some that happened once or twice and never returned, like pounding headaches in the back of my head that woke me in the middle of the night and kept me up for several hours at a time.


I went to see my doctor about a week after the onset of symptoms, and I saw him and many specialists frequently for the next seven months.  I had many rounds of blood and stool tests, a colonoscopy, and an endoscopy.  These tests and procedures didn’t offer any clues.


We eventually began to suspect parasites that one finds in China, but not so much here, even though the many tests designed to reveal the full range of likely suspects had been negative.  Sneaky creatures, these.


Infectious disease doctors began to treat me “empirically,” which basically means throwing a series of drugs at the patient to see if anything sticks.


I got the pounding headaches at night while taking a two-week course of one of these drugs, which targets a broad range of parasitic worms.  The headaches prompted an emergency MRI of my head, because a pathologist friend of mine feared I was plagued by a worm which attacks the brain and requires immediate surgery that’s done well in just two places in the U.S., neither of which is Boston.


The drug I was taking when the headaches gave us that big scare actually seems to have been a turning point.  I had my first solid you-know-what in ages shortly after that.  They remained a rare occurrence for months, but things have slowly gotten better.  I’m now somewhat more regular, and I have considerably more energy.


Still, I haven’t yet fully recovered, and the past year has taken a toll.  I started turning grey during this illness.  There are a few other signs of “extraordinary wear and tear.”


I turn 50 in July.  I felt like 30 before this saga began.  Now I feel like, well, 50.  I hope to feel like 40 again, and I now believe that’s possible, but 30 somehow doesn’t seem realistic anymore.


I’m not telling you all this to evoke expressions of sympathy, though I’ve certainly appreciated the support I’ve received from family and friends.  It’s been a tough year.


I’m telling you about this experience because it really got me thinking about life – my life, and life in general.  And death.  About the fact that I am of the nature to get ill, grow old, and die.


And because it got me thinking about worms.


Worm infections were common in North America generations ago, when public health standards weren’t what they are today.  They’re now pretty rare here, but they’re still relatively common in many places, including China.


During one of the most intense phases of this whole episode, Josh reminded me that a worm infection is one theory about the cause of the Buddha’s death.


According to this story, the broad outline of which is surely credible, he and his entourage were visiting a village where someone offered him a bowl of rice and meat.  Typically vegetarian, he was hungry and wanted to be gracious.  (Actually, some versions of the story, perhaps the most mythologized versions, say he knew the meat was bad, and he was staging his own death.)  He ate the meal, became ill, and died.


If I did have worms, and if I got them from meat I ate in China, it’s pretty ironic.  I mainly feed myself plants, and I typically only eat meat when someone has prepared or purchased a meal for me and I don’t want to decline the generosity.  I’ll certainly be reconsidering that policy before my next trip to the developing world.


Anyway, this whole experience was bizarre and unsettling, and also strangely reassuring, in a variety of ways.


Here are three ways in which it was both unsettling and reassuring:


First, and most obviously, there is the very tangible reminder of my mortality, for which I’m strangely grateful.


Talk about a practice of not knowing.  I mean really not knowing.  Not knowing what I had when I was very sick, and not knowing still.  It seems we’ll never know exactly what it was.


What a powerful reminder this has been to try to live meaningfully.  What a powerful reminder that my number truly will be up someday – perhaps sooner, and differently, than I’m inclined to imagine.


One day as I walked from home to catch a train to Boston for work and more doctor visits I heard a HUGE bang.  I looked to my left to see that two cars had just had a head-on collision perhaps 15 feet away, and that one of the cars was now hurtling right toward me.  My heart pounding, I jumped out of the way before it hit the spot where I’d been walking.


The illness, the car wreck, turning 50:  It seems the universe really does want me to be aware of my mortality.


I get it.  I truly get it now.  And I’m truly grateful that I do.


Second, there’s the reminder that our day-to-day experience is contingent, just like our very existence.


The “me” I know and tend to think of as stable from moment to moment is contingent upon my physical condition, which is contingent upon what I eat, which is contingent upon what I eat has eaten.  Etc.


Everything is related through-and-through, and constantly changing, and so contingent.


And, it follows, I’m not completely in control.  I suppose I’m not even mostly in control – physically, mentally, and otherwise.  In fact, the whole “I’m in control” narrative is coming from a distorted conception of “me.”


The reassuring flip-side of this is that I don’t have to go through life burdened by the delusion that I am in control.  I can let go of that feature of what seems to be the human mental default mode, and just be part of it all.


I can have an influence.  In fact, I will have an influence, whether I try to or not.  To breathe in this realm of radical interdependence is to have an influence.  So I’ll try to have a positive influence, knowing all-the-while that I’m not in control and I can’t be sure what will come of my actions.


Third, there’s the reminder of the terror and the beauty of life.


The experience of being delirious at times, and of generally being a bit off-kilter, excitable and irritable when I wasn’t completely delirious, was really scary.  This was not the me I know.


We were on vacation during the latter two delirium episodes – the ones that occurred in Paris and Stockholm.  Having two little kids cooped up in hotel rooms with a crazy man was not a recipe for fun.  The kids’ bouncing on beds, shouting and screaming playfully, would have mildly pressed my buttons even if I’d just spent a week on sesshin.  I had almost no capacity to deal with that under the circumstances.


It’s not our practice to yell at our children.  The wisdom of that policy was confirmed by my behavior during our stay in Stockholm.  I lost it with the kids a couple of times.  That was really disturbing for them, and the confusion and guilt I felt when I began to regain my senses was just horrible.


Yet it also provided great opportunities for redemption and learning.  The delirium, the yelling: they were the muck at the bottom of the pond in which the Lotus blooms.


I learned to apologize to a six-year old and a three-year old, deeply, sincerely.  I don’t think it necessarily was bad for them to see an adult – their father – do that.  They were incredibly understanding and forgiving.


(My wife assures me that we had a lovely vacation nonetheless, and that these moments were passing little blips.  I feel like I owe my family a very pleasant, sane vacation, and we’ve got one planned next month.)


As I make this point, I’m aware that it’s easy to get lost in, to try to cling to, the beauty of that Lotus when it’s in full bloom.  To favor what appears to us to be beautiful, worthy, redeeming or whatever.  But this koan invites us to see that no Lotus, Lotus, Lotus petals are all one.  All part of an unbroken cycle.  All present in whatever is present here and now, whether or not we deem it to be desirable.


From one perspective, it’s terrifying and disgusting to think about worms burrowing through sewage and trash as pigs eat it and them; of the pig’s slaughter; of me eating the pork and the worms; of the worms making Swiss cheese of my innards; of the pork, the worms, and, ultimately, me, returning to the soil.  Yet, the soil the worms turn is the soil from which the Lotus blooms.


I started sitting in the Christian contemplative tradition, which developed in monastic circles.  I’ve always been struck by the image of the medieval monk with a skull on his desk.  Often these images have a worm slithering through the holes in the skull.


A reminder of our mortality.  And of renewal.  Of terror-beauty.  Life-death.


Two sides of one coin; not even two sides.  Not even one.


Where to go with all this?  There is no conclusion, really.  Nowhere to go.


I’ll close with a few lines from the German romantic poet Rainer Maria Rilke that I’ve always loved:


For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror . . . and we are awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.


Let everything happen to you

Beauty and terror

Just keep going

No feeling is final


One more thing:  It is both odd and quite personally meaningful to me to be giving this particular talk, coincidentally, on the day Maurice Sendak died.  I learned of his death early this morning, when my wife sent me a text after hearing about it on NPR as she drove to work.


Sendak, of course, is widely considered the most important contemporary author of children’s literature.  His Nutshell Library – a collection of four small books – which was published in 1962, the year I was born, is among my favorite works of literature of any kind.  Many people know Sendak through Where the Wild Things Are, his genre-transforming book that was made into a movie a few years ago.


Sendak upended the idealized images of the physical and social landscape, and of our interior lives, that were so common in most of the children’s literature that preceded him (setting aside some exceptions like the tales of The Brothers Grimm).  He embraced and held together the beauty and the terror of life in his writing, incorporating the full spectrum of human experience and emotion in contemporary children’s literature.  Kids also experience the terror of life alongside the beauty, and he validated that experience for them.


Sendak certainly initiated me into the beauty and terror of life, as he’s now done for my own children.  I’m deeply grateful to and for him, and I’m unsettled and strangely reassured to be giving this talk on the day he died.