As Gary Larson said in his Far Side cartoon, it’s not the bluebird of happiness that’s flapped into my life, but the chicken of depression.
Grief has led me up the steep switchbacks to the top of the Sierra Nevada mountains where the wind blows over a stone land scrimshawed with stunted trees and scattered snow. In the distance is the barren desert of the shimmering Great Basin with its horned lizards, black-tailed jackrabbits, and sidewinders. If I hike down there, I will have to deal with the brutal, unrelenting solitude. And I feel the pull.
I’m not stuck in nihilism where everything is pared away until nothing is left, no morals or values. Something is here, in the space left by Evelyn’s death, whether it’s faith, the nudging of a higher power, or just orneriness. It could be the start of Zen’s nothingness where the self ceases to exist. I have no desires, goals, or expectations, which would be perfect for a breakthrough to enlightenment.
Yet the absolute emptiness of Zen is not a void of everything. It’s breaking through illusions and stripping away expectations that blind me from seeing reality as it is, not as I prefer it to be. The self is emptied so that it can fill with the whole of creation. Reality is affirmed, as Nietzsche said, with both its negative and positive elements.
I have been emptied, desires have fled, and illusions have been shattered, but compassion has died and I have only been filled with sorrow. The thick, sagging curtain of Oz has been pulled aside.
After three months, grief draws its cold sheet back a tad. It’s become clear, as I sit in my Zen Nietzsche bathtub, that happiness is not a place we arrive, but moments we pass through.
I begin patching together scraps of my shattered life with strips of duct tape, hoping they hold. But how much of the past do I pull into the future that will only drag me back? How do I break free of what can no longer be in order to begin a new life that I do not want? How many doughnuts must I eat before I realize that their sugary emptiness is not what I seek?
In today’s newspaper, many of the obituaries are for those above the age of 70, but one quarter involve people in their 50s or younger. We don’t die old as conquerors. We die as survivors, and we survive more by luck than robust health or the careful strategies we figure out, like never eating French fries with gravy, although they taste really good.
Accidents, illnesses, oversights, mistakes—a lot of us go before our day planners say it’s time. Old age is a gift, not a right, and it’s no longer one of my expectations, although my grandparents and parents lived well into old age.
The characters on “The Simpsons” comfort me with divine wisdom each evening as I eat dinner alone in front of the TV. They break through my stupor and make me laugh. Their humor, in the face of life’s absurdities, tells me to not be so serious, because too often something happens that upsets even the best thought out plans.
When his wife was dying, South African author Alan Paton struggled to understand the incomprehensibility of God. He wrote about Francis of Assisi kissing the rotting flesh of a leper, and concluded that God was both creator and destroyer. God’s apparent cruelty toward people was offset by his abundant love. “This may be blasphemy,” he wrote, “but at least it is honest blasphemy.” His thoughts echo Hindu’s pantheon of gods: Brahma the creator and Shiva the destroyer. Lisa the good; Bart the prankster.
It feels like there will be a place of sadness in me for Ev until the end of my days, a despair that will never leave, whether I try to push it out, fill the hole, or just give up. Life is not The Beach Boys singing of tan muscles, blond hair, bikinis, and sand. Everything has its shadow side.
I gather with others in the forest and build a fire against the darkness and encroaching cold. As we warm each other and watch Orion’s nebula travel though the birthing chaos of the wild universe, we encourage each other to take risks again, and to celebrate whenever we can, because life is transitory, fragile, and so damn beautiful.
Author: Mark Liebenow
Image: Author’s Own; Pixabay
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy Editor: Callie Rushton
Social Editor: Callie Rushton