This April evening
how delighted the finches,
how quiet the streets!
This April evening
how delighted the finches,
how quiet the streets!
The twentieth of the major arcana in the tarot is the Aeon, which I think of as the turning of the wheel of time: the end of one age and the beginning of another. And just as the wider world experiences these sudden transformations, we too find that one day some great cycle has ended, and we find ourselves in a new phase. 2019 was like that for me.
First, I quit waiting tables, and think I may actually be done with food service for good. Famous last words, I know, but that was back in May, and I don’t see myself going back. To say that this is a relief is an understatement. I never minded the work – I actually miss the physical activity and socializing – but the working environment, especially the needless hierarchy and frequent mismanagement, was always hard to bear.
Since quitting, I’ve enjoyed a remarkable freedom to follow my own pursuits. All year I’ve been practicing yoga as intensely as I could manage, and in July did yoga teacher training with Kindness here in Denver. Teacher training has opened new depths to my practice (I wish I’d done it years ago), and also introduced me to a host of new friends. At forty-three, I feel an increasing need to care for my body – and at the same time, I have new aches and stiffnesses.
Even before the training was over, however, I had to leave to be with my brother Sean for his medically assisted death, after his years-long struggle with ALS. I had never witnessed a death before, and this was an up-close and personal as it gets, holding his hand as he died. His passing in many respects has overshadowed all else this year, and it continues to reverberate through my consciousness. Often I meet him in my dreams, sometimes as a boy, sometimes an adult, sometimes as the old man he would have lived to be. Sean, I am honored to have been your brother.
Returning to Colorado, I immediately helped organize the Zen Center of Denver’s summer retreat, in a spectacular mountain valley northwest of Boulder. With the retreat finished, we turned our attention to the imminent opening of the our new temple, a project that has been in the works for years (I even had a hand in helping design the building). Naturally this has demanded a good deal of my time and energy as office manager, and its completion is a dream come true, not just for me but for the whole community.
Shortly before it opened, I moved out of my apartment (and in with friends for a month – thanks again, Casciato/Benson family!). When all was in readiness, I moved into the temple as resident caretaker and office manager; and here I am, and deeply grateful for the opportunity.
Since moving in, I’ve been seeking to establish a regular daily schedule: meditation, writing, office work, exercise, errands, yoga, more meditation, and of course the occasional dance party. On Sundays I also go play Magic: The Gathering with a great group, which has ended up being surprisingly rich for me – not so much in the game (though I do enjoy mercilessly crushing my enemies) – but in the easygoing friendships it has fostered.
All this adds up to me being in a fundamentally different place than I have been for the last four or five years, since the end of my last long relationship – and in a way, it feels like the end of an even longer cycle, since the end of college (which coincided with the end of another long relationship). I might say as well that reconciling with solitude – i.e. not being in a relationship – has been one of my greatest challenges, a kind of ache I can never seem to satisfy; and for whatever reason, I have had a difficult time forging deep connections with women (or really, a woman – I ain’t greedy).
For the new year, my usual resolutions: Finish another novel. Do zazen every day. Perfect the handstand (I’m so goddamn close, I swear). Give my full energy, attention and generous spirit to each person I meet. Live with an open heart. Hold nothing back. Be thankful.
What follows is a letter that I wrote to my brother Sean Tagert some months ago, after he had posted a very dark and despairing message online, and first mentioned medically assisted death. I hope it provided some comfort to him then; perhaps it can bring some comfort to his friends and family now. Rest in peace, brother.
I read your post on Facebook and knew I had to write. Really I should have written long ago, but life has a way of carrying us quickly along.
I wish I could be there for you now; I wish also that I could have been closer for all these many years. It is curious that throughout my adult life, I have been essentially a bystander to my own family, but then it also seems that this was something decided many years ago. I come for a visit once a year, more or less, and these week-long glimpses are all I really know of my mother and siblings. There are great chapters of your life I know nothing about, whole relationships passed unnoticed, titanic struggles unmarked.
This includes the progress of your ALS, the steady, infinitely cruel erosion of your health and abilities. I literally cannot imagine your suffering. But I am sorry for what you have been made to endure.
With that said, I want also to offer some thoughts on living and dying, as you are, clearly, in extremis. I have no particular experience with death, beyond being certain to experience it eventually; but maybe that’s enough. My hope is to ease your pain: not your physical pain, which is clearly out of reach, but your mental, emotional, and spiritual pain, the turmoil of the heart.
It hurts me to think that I will soon lose my brother, but it hurts me yet more to hear the despair in your voice. It’s not that it’s surprising – as I said, no one but you can know what you’re going through – but now, more than ever, I hope you can feel at peace.
Yes, at peace – peace without limit, like the starry night sky, or the waves of the ocean, or the laughter of a child. I mean a peace beyond the reach of the world’s dust, a peace so deep that when you feel it you know that you have never really been apart from it, because it is you. It is your very flesh and bone, indeed it is a peace beyond flesh and bone. It is the peace of connection: of oneness with all things, just as they are.
This is, from one standpoint, a very Buddhist view, but I trust you will see that it is not just some sectarian doctrine. It’s inherent in being. In the realest, ultimate sense, you are the world. You are the air you breathe, the food you eat; you are the sound of the music, and the feel of the bedsheets; you are the yapping dog and door closing; perhaps most of all, you are the people around you, you are Aidan and Mom and Leah and everyone else.
Ultimately you have no edges, and this is proven true in death. We return from whence we came, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. And just as there was a time before you were born, there will be a time after you have died; and seeing this, you will see that existence and nonexistence are essentially the same thing. They’re two sides of the same coin.
So please, don’t say that you’ve failed. In life there is no real failure; there is only the mysterious movement of energy in the present, the unceasing, ever-flowing Tao. Alan Watts said that life ought not be regarded as a journey with a serious end, that may be achieved or not, but should rather be seen as “a musical thing – you were supposed to sing and dance while the music was playing.”
So sing and dance! (Okay, not literally, in your case. 😉) Celebrate your life! Remember the joy you’ve had, and treasure each moment remaining. And if it comes time to end it, do so with all the grace and good humor you can muster. Gather your loved ones together, wish them well, and wave to them as you pass into the great beyond. Dying, as you know better than me, is hard; but death itself, I am certain, is a return to limitless connection, by which I mean limitless joy.
You said that [your son] Aidan would be devastated by your passing. You may of course be right. But it seems to me there is one last gift you can give him, one last lesson you can impart: how to die well.
Life, after all, is a gift. It comes to us free of charge, no strings attached. Each moment, each sensation, each memory, is a blessing. What better, then, than to pass on that gift, to communicate this same spirit of gratitude to those who will follow you?
We have been given many such blessings. I want to end this letter with two, both, as it happens, involving riding in a car with you. The first was in Hawaii, when I was twenty-three or twenty-four and you were twenty-two or so. We were driving back from Kona side, from kayaking at Kealakekua Bay, and the sun had set. Lindsey and I were in the front seat, and you were with Naoko [a Japanese girl staying with us at the time] in the back, asleep or nearly so, with her head on your shoulder. And as we rode along the curving road through the jungle valleys near Hilo, like a car in a dream, Leonard Cohen was playing on the stereo, singing his sad gentle songs:
Who by fire, who by water
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial
Who in your merry, merry month of May,
Who by very slow decay,
And who shall I say is calling?
The second was more recent, when I visited you in Langley. You drove me to the airport in your convertible, your right hand (though already withering from the ALS) moving the stick shift swiftly through the gears. As we crossed over the Port Mann Bridge, the sun breaking through the clouds and the wind streaming in our hair, I knew very well that this would be the last time I would ride with my brother like this. And it occurred to me then that likewise it was the last time you would ride with me; that your life and my life were, in that brilliant moment, one. Tears streamed down my cheeks behind my sunglasses, though perhaps you didn’t notice; tears are streaming down my cheeks now.
With the greatest love, your brother,
May you rest in perfect peace, Sean Patrick Tagert (Sept. 14, 1978 – Aug. 6, 2019). Sean passed away peacefully at his home in Powell River, B.C., surrounded by his family and loved ones, shortly after 3 p.m. yesterday. He was perfectly lucid, having refused most painkillers, and courageous to the last.
Sean was diagnosed with ALS in March 2013. For years he endured the steady deterioration of his abilities, until suffering cardiac arrest in late Oct. 2017. He was resuscitated and placed on a ventilator, and lived since then on life support, completely immobile, communicating only via an eye-tracking computer setup. Finally, with his health rapidly deteriorating, Sean opted for a medically assisted death. His family gives special thanks to those medical professionals who helped ease his suffering with grace and steadiness. The family would also like to express their heartfelt gratitude to Dr. Stephen Burns, Sean’s longtime doctor, for his continual care and devotion; to Jennifer Goodson, Sean’s occupational therapist and a ray of sunshine in dark days; to the many caregivers who lovingly tended Sean’s needs over the years; and to the ALS Society of British Columbia and the Caya Society for their support of families in crisis. Per Sean’s wishes, there will be no funeral or memorial service, but those who would like to remember him are encouraged to donate to these organizations.
Ensuring consistent care was a constant struggle and source of stress for Sean as a patient. While he succeeded, with the help of many, in piecing together a suitable care facility in his own home (including an expensive saliva-suction machine, needed to prevent him from choking, obtained with the help of donations raised online), gaining the 24-hour care he required was extremely difficult, especially as the provincial government refused to fully fund home care. The few institutional options on hand, Sean pointed out, would have offered vastly inferior care while separating him from his family, and likely would have hastened his death. We would ask, on Sean’s behalf, that the government recognize the serious problems in its treatment of ALS patients and their families, and find real solutions for those already suffering unimaginably.
Those who knew Sean will remember him as particularly funny, active and vibrant. As a kid he was always one to take a dare, delighting in tricks on his BMX bike, skateboard or snowboard. He always kept himself fit; in fact he first noticed something was wrong physically because when he was weightlifting, one side of his body seemed to getting weaker rather than stronger. He was extremely capable, working as a large-engine mechanic, and loved cars, in particular his 2001 Honda S-2000, tearing around with the top down and music blasting. Even when he had lost the ability to speak, he retained his sense of humor, recording a Youtube video of himself in the hospital drinking a Guinness via his feeding tube.
While born in Texas (his father is American), Sean spent most of his life in Canada. He grew up in Mackenzie, B.C., and worked in the sawmill until moving away to Edmonton, Alberta. Raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, Sean met his wife, Sharlene, at a dance organized by congregation members there. Soon they had a son, Aidan, the light of Sean’s life. Later the family moved to Arizona, where Sean developed a love of Mexican and Latino culture, food and music. After four years there, the family decided to return to Canada, living first in Langley, B.C., and then Powell River.
Above all else Sean was devoted to his son, Aidan (who is the spitting image of his father, in appearance and personality). Sean often said that Aidan was his reason for living, and had a close relationship with him right to the end. In fact some of Sean’s last words of conversation (via his computer), in the very hour of his death, were to and about Aidan. Aidan and Shar were talking about a vacation the family had taken to Mexico, and the food they liked, and others chimed in to discuss Mexican versus Hawaiian papayas. “I love papayas,” Aidan said.
“I don’t think it was papayas,” Shar replied. “I think it was mangoes from one of the street vendors. You ate like three of them.” And Sean wrote:
You lovvved the Mexican mangoes with the chile spice
the vendor was amazed
like an animal at a bone
Of course he said more, over and over expressing his love for his family. We love you too, we replied, holding his hands, rubbing his arms and shoulders, kissing his forehead. We always will.
“You have entered now into the Great Illusion,” said the sorceress. “When you passed through the mirror, you left one world and entered another. Who’s to say what’s real?” She ran a hand through the fur of the lioness beside her, then waved languidly at the great hall, the four steel golems, all spikes and armor. “Did you know I’m a queen in my world?”
Naoko Furoshi stood with hand on her sword, feet apart, ready for instantaneous movement in any direction, precisely poised. Of course she knew the risks of chasing a highly magical being into a mirror, but she hadn’t realized Leyendra was actually this powerful. Furoshi traced a rune of revealing in the air with her left hand, the magical forces she employed leaving tracers behind her fingers.
Her eyes thus magically sharpened, the hall popped: the speckled black marble at her feet, Leyendra’s silky yellow outfit, the texture of the lion’s pink tongue when it yawned. There was magic here, spells of protection, of magical amplification, runes laid into the stones and woven into the tapestries. But the room itself did not waver; so far as she could tell, it was a real place, somewhere in the multiverse. She had been foolish to come here. Continue reading
“At present, most of us do nothing. We look away. We remain calm. We are silent. We take refuge in the hope that the holocaust won’t happen, and turn back to our individual concerns. We deny the truth that is all around us. Indifferent to the future of our kind, we grow indifferent to one another. We drift apart. We grow cold. We drowse our way toward the end of the world. But if once we shook off our lethargy and fatigue and began to act, the climate would change. Just as inertia produces despair – a despair often so deep that it does not even know itself as despair – arousal and action would give us access to hope, and life would start to mend: not just life in its entirety but daily life, every individual life. At that point, we would begin to withdraw from our role as both the victims and the perpetrators of mass murder. We would no longer be the destroyers of mankind but, rather, the gateway through which the future generations would enter the world. Then the passion and will that we need to save ourselves would flood into our lives. Then the walls of indifference, inertia, and coldness that now isolate each of us from others would melt, like snow in spring.”
– Jonathan Schell, The Fate of the Earth
I am honestly shocked at how bad season 8 episode 4 of Game of Thrones was. I heard the complaints about episode 3 and thought, “Whatever, it’s still an incredible spectacle. Best zombie battle ever.” But this was just… awful. Like the Sand Snakes awful. Like twenty scenes of Theon getting tortured awful. Forced plots, bad dialogue, characters we care deeply about acting in ways completely inconsistent with everything that’s gone before. How can a show that cost hundreds of millions – billions? – to produce lose all sense of itself right at the climax? What the hell happened in that room of screenwriters?
So, I’m going to do us all a favor and rewrite the ending. Fan fiction FTW! Here’s what should have happened from episode 3 onward (sort-of-spoilers abound):
In his later years, Zen Master Hakuin spoke of entering “a samadhi of words” as he wrote. Like a prophet of old, he was gripped by inspiration – literally by the in-breath, and then the out-breath.
Perhaps we think of samadhi as a state beyond words, an effortless absorption in the moment that words can never touch. But here Hakuin says something different: He is effortlessly absorbed in words themselves, which is to say, with thought. Though thought is not all we are, nevertheless you are not separate from thoughts. You are entirely one with them; they arise as naturally as sap in a tree, and pass like falling leaves. Then your voice is one with the wind and the birds.
Book review: No Better Place: A New Zen Primer by Hoag Holmgren. Middle Creek Publishing, 2019.
A sense of great spaciousness is apparent in the first and perhaps definitive sentence of Hoag Holmgren’s No Better Place: “Zen Buddhism is a path of waking up to the vastness of who you are.” Immediately Holmgren encourages us to become expansive, to relinquish our limitations, to meet the blue sky in its untrammeled heights.
Subtitled A New Zen Primer, Holmgen’s book comprises sixty-four pithy chapters occasionally verging into epigram (“If reason is an ornithologist, Zen is a raven”). Along with some basic instruction in zazen, it offers a series of lapidary comments on the nature of Zen practice and its functioning, enjoining us to become ever more open and to let go our needless hindrances. Included also are commentaries on the Ten Oxherding Pictures, a collection of paintings from 12th-century China that depict the stages of practice and realization from the seeker’s first inklings of Buddha nature to the full realization of the awakened bodhisattva acting unselfconsciously in the world.
In form and style, No Better Place reminds me most of the work of Robert Aitken, in particular his last book, Miniatures of a Zen Master, a collection of ever-profound musings published toward the end of Aitken’s life. As in Miniatures, Holmgren is unafraid to leave space on the page, to give us room to consider just a few sentences at a time, as one would read a poem. This isn’t a mad dash from page to page; it’s a cup of cold spring water, relished one swallow at a time.
The resemblance between the books may be no coincidence. Holmgren has trained for many years with Danan Henry Roshi, the founding teacher of our own Zen Center of Denver, and Henry in turn trained initially with Philip Kapleau and later with Aitken, becoming sanctioned as a Diamond Sangha teacher. So there is a direct practice connection here, a transmission of understanding as well as style. Along with several quotations from Aitken, we also find anecdotes from the lives of Kapleau and Henry (including a striking story from the latter describing an experience during his time with Harada Tangen Roshi in Japan). The stream flows on and on; the Dharma wind flies unhindered from Japan to Hawaii to the Colorado Rockies.
Like Aitken’s work, too, No Better Place is deceptively simple on its face. I remember reading Aitken’s Taking the Path of Zen and thinking, “Well, sure. This is all stuff I already sort of knew.” But prior to reading it, much that it discussed was vague to me. It provided clear instruction in zazen combined with a small course in Dharma, expressed with concision and elegance. And while primarily written in prose, Aitken’s work looked to poetry for its inspiration, via numerous quotations and lyrical phrasing. Consider, from No Better Place:
“The solution to the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem,” says Ludwig Wittgenstein. Indeed, there are no tidy answers to the big questions. But when there is no highway of thinking cutting you off from the world, there is also no paradox about life and death. There is just intimacy. In the deep-water stillness of zazen, this means that there is just breathing. The breath devours you. You don’t know if you’re breathing the breath or if the breath is breathing you. Off the meditation cushion this means that there is only the lone coyote trotting across the dirt road. There is no detached observer categorizing and labeling. There’s just taking care of a sick child. Just mourning the loss of a loved one. Just watering the garden and pulling weeds. Just this hook of moon rising above the trees, closer than your hand.
A quotation (No Better Place is replete with them, from wide-ranging sources) sparks a reflection on stillness and intimacy; general statements yield to concrete images at once evocative yet rooted in everyday experience (“this hook of moon rising above the trees”). Or consider again, in the book’s most explicit instruction:
The zazen posture, whether on a cushion or in a chair, is a straight back, an alert forward-facing head, eyes half open and softly focused, the gaze lowered. The lower back gently and naturally curves in. Breathing is comfortably anchored in the belly. The left hand rests on the right hand, palms up, thumb tips touching lightly to make a soft circle or oval. The mind’s allegiance shifts to the breath, to the awareness of bodily sensations, to the immediacy of what’s actually occurring right now, here. In this way, zazen is a voyage. There is no departure and no arrival but belief, faith and views are left behind. It’s a journey of verifying via direct experience what the Buddha verified: that you and all rivers, mountains, spiral galaxies, and beings have the same last name.
In these oft-repeated physical instructions, one cannot but hear an echo of Dogen’s Fukanzazengi:
At the site of your regular sitting, spread out a thick mat and place a firm round cushion on it. Sit on the cushion in either the full lotus or half-lotus posture. In the full lotus posture, you first place your right foot on your left thigh and your left foot on your right thigh. …
Having adjusted your body in this manner, take a deep breath and exhale fully, sway your body left and right several times, and settle into an immobile sitting posture. Then sit firmly as a rock and think of not-thinking. How do you think of not-thinking? By not thinking. This is the very basis of zazen.
The form of zazen has not changed much, or indeed at all, and our practice is the practice of the ancients – of the ancient “spiral galaxies,” even. The limitless universe bows and returns to its seat. What could be better?
Early in spring Yama-uba fell sick with a fever. One morning, after a terrible night in which she thought she might die, she woke to hear the crying of a child. Startled, she sat up, looking around with alarm.
“Who’s there?” she called hoarsely. The only answer was more crying. “Hell and death, child,” she cursed, fighting her way to standing, damp with sweat beneath her crude patchwork robe. When she moved, her little pet mouse, Kyojin, scampered from the blankets and sought shelter behind a box. Yama-uba tottered over to the door, lifted the rope latch and looked with astonishment at her visitor.
Her sole visitor: for the child was alone, a little topknotted boy in a beautiful green kimono embroidered with a pattern of interlocking yellow snakes. His face was red and streaked with tears; he might have been two. Breath hitching, he looked up with big wet eyes.
Yama-uba looked, but she saw no one in the rain-glistening forest. “Hello?” she called, loudly as she was able. But no one answered, and her visitor only sniffled at her inquiries. He looked in rosy health, and his attire bespoke wealth and position. But what was he doing out here in the forest? Continue reading