January 22, 2006

Life is Life

It is late 1991. The car is laying into the switchbacks with regularity like windshield wipers, a metronome. A pendulum. Through the windshield I can make out the Pacific Ocean, a shade darker then the sharkskin sky sitting above it. To the right, hearty California sagebrush and mountains; to the left maybe a valley, a void, emptiness, the end.

My parents are in front, dad is driving, mom is quiet allowing the wind to enter the car to wash over us and escape out through the back window. I am seventeen and hungover. I just threw up a little in my mouth; if my dad doesn’t turn down the Rockmoninoff, I may vomit all over the back seat.

There is a not so subtle discussion permeating the car, one that I am expected to be a part of. Concepts like middle of the road, moderation, neutrality, and balance are lobbed at me in the back seat, only to be volleyed back with grunts and moans. “We should not become attached to ideas of happiness or pain”, a voice in the front says. We are on our way to the Green Gulch Zen Farm. My parents are trying to understand the lessons they learned last week. I wish I could just ask them to shut up and pull over so I can get rid of the Southern Comfort pickling my liver.

We have an agreement. I can spend the weekends with my friends with relative impunity if I make the once-a-month trip with them to Green Gulch. “If we can find balance in our lives, then we are not too excited when things are going well, and we are not crushed when they don’t. We simply float comfortably through life, allowing it to take us where we need to go, like a river. What do you think, Beezy?"

“That sounds like you are dead,” I manage to spit out. I had ignored most of the conversation, but come on, this was ridiculous. Not feeling happiness or sorrow sounded more like a coma than life. Should I share the quote by William Blake that would become my mantra, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”? But instead I say, “Can we please pull over? I think I am going to be sick.”

That ride to the Zen center, years ago, ended with me throwing up outside the car, as a group of turkey vultures circled overhead and tiny particles of the ocean fell on my face. How did they make it so far inland? I wondered as my parents waited in the car. Back in the car, the talk about moderation had ended. Apparently, my parents assumed that the lesson had been learned.

Little did they know that I would spend the next ten years trying to prove them wrong. Middle of the road, who were they kidding? I would take everything I did to one extreme or another. Filled with unexplainable rage and vendetta towards the universe, I wanted to prove that life was best lived in the extremes. I filled several photo albums and journals with images of me: jumping off bridges with fire red hair, crying alone with a sixteen pack of Mickey’s and corndogs on Thanksgiving, floating over crowds of thousands at hundreds of concerts pumping my fists, bouts of depression fought off with bucket of alcohol. Good or bad, I did the opposite of what we discussed that day in the car. The middle was the last place I wanted to be. I would rather be on the verge of suicide or euphoria that to just sit numbly and watch my life pass by.

It has taken me many years and many more scars to finally realize what my parents were talking about that day years ago. Now that I am thirty-one, married, a middle school English teacher who doesn’t drink, and a father-to-be, the idea of not becoming attached to the duality of life is starting to make sense. The lesson doesn’t say that we shouldn’t live our lives to the fullest. It explains that it is futile to place any value on the emotions we attach to life. Separating concepts like happiness and sorrow, or good and evil, or success and failure, even life and death causes us to want one or the other. In which case we allow events to control our lives. Where as if we simply live our lives, unattached, we are better able to simply be.

Finding balance does not mean that you are dead. A life lived neutrally is by no means a life lived in a coma, but rather a fuller life. One in which we accept both the good and bad, but we do not conceptualized these emotions. We simply accept them and know that the events in our lives are not affected by the emotions we attach to them. Life is life and that is all.

I was thinking of all of this last Wednesday as my wife and I were sitting in traffic on our way to the hospital. She is sixteen weeks pregnant, which is the best time to learn the lesson of taking things as they come. Pregnancy is a time when the smallest problem can seem like the end of the world, or when any positive event, like a beating heart, can seem like the ultimate miracle. It is a time where a couple can go mad if they live each day on the polar extremes.

And at no time was this hypersensitivity more evident than last Wednesday. The doctor had called us and said that the results of a blood test we had taken had raised some red flags and our risk for having a baby with Downs Syndrome were higher than normal. This news immediately set off a series of emotional crisis. I sank to the bottom and started thinking of the worst things that could have happened. My mind raced as I imagined a life spent with a baby that wasn’t perfect. I was riddled with guilt for these thoughts, but they kept assailing me.

I thought back to the car ride to Green Gulch years earlier, and the idea of not investing too much in any one emotion began to make more sense. I could have sat in that cab and focused on the worst, or I could have wished for the best, but the thing that would make it bearable would be to simply not attach myself to either outcome. These tests were something that was happening. How would my panic help the situation? I looked over at my wife and tried to comfort her, but we were both too far out there with worry to help each other.

I realized that the idea of moderation was not an easy one. It is anything but living life in a coma. It is a very active way to live life, fully aware and accepting everything it has to offer. I had misjudged the complexity of the concept in my youth. I had tried so hard to prove that I was alive by taking everything to an extreme that I had never simply sat in the middle of my life and allowed it to enter me so to speak. Last Wednesday, sitting in that cab staring out the window, I did just that. Every time I thought about the possibility of having an imperfect baby, I told myself that it would be okay. No matter what I would love her. And every time I thought about having a perfect baby, I told myself that it would be okay. No matter what I would love her. Like a seesaw, I tried to balance myself in the turmoil of my emotions. The end result would be: no matter what, I would love her.

I am not going to lie and say this was easy. As a matter of fact, it was the hardest thing I have ever done. I could have thrown myself to one side or the other like I had done in the past. To assume the worst and get drunk, or assume the best and ignore reality would have been the easiest way out, but to try and realize both options and fully trust that both would be okay proved to be much more difficult.

The doctor performed an amnio and granted my wife and I the opportunity to test our Zen philosophies for a few more days. We knew we couldn’t wait two weeks for the results even while trying to remain calm. We decided to do another test and get the results in two days. During those two days I laughed, brooded, dreamed, and tried stay in the middle. I thought about the years that had gone by before I had learned this very simple lesson: Life cannot be divided into two parts. Everything is everything. We suffer when we attach value to a life that is impermanent.

I tried to remain calm, last Saturday, when the doctor told me everything was fine, but I became ecstatic when he said we were going to have a little girl. I reached out a grabbed the good news. I am still learning after all. Maybe I can help Kaia learn these lessons. We do have an eternity after all.

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