Jacob, almost 70, finds himself in the mid-stages of Alzheimer’s. For over 20 years a clinical psychologist and mediator, Jacob is now acutely aware that his faculties are deteriorating. On occasion his mind and recall are totally blank. At times he needs help with rudimentary physical tasks. Even so, Jacob’s spirit does not break.
At a retreat with Tara Brach, Jacob is asked, “How can you be so accepting toward your disease?”
He said simply, “Because it doesn’t feel like anything is wrong. I feel grief and some fear about it all going, but it all feels like real life.”
Jacob told Tara a story about an experience at an event–which happened in the earlier stages of the disease–when he traveled and gave talks about Buddhism. On one occasion, a hundred meditation students gathered alert and eager. He looked out at the expectant faces, and suddenly didn’t know what to say or do. He didn’t know where he was or why he was there. With his heart pounding and his mind spinning in confusion, Jacob put his palms together at his heart, and began naming, out loud, what was happening inside; “Afraid, embarrassed, confused, feeling like I’m failing, powerless, shaking, sense of dying, sinking, lost.”
In time he relaxed and grew calm. He lifted his head. And apologized to the audience.
Students were in tears. “No one has ever taught us like this,” said many.
Which begs the question, “What exactly did he teach? And what lesson is to be learned here?”
Is it possible to live from wholehearted vulnerability?
It brings to mind a movie. From Hachi I learn the lesson.
Hachi waited for nine years. Every day, at the same time, Hachi sat outside the Shibuya train station. And his master never returns. Hachi dies at the same spot where he last saw his friend alive. A bronze statue commemorating Hachi–an Akita dog–was set up in front of the Shibuya Station after his death.
Born in 1923, Hachi (Hachiko) was first brought to Tokyo in 1924. From the start, he and his owner, Mr. Hidesaburo Ueno, were inseparable friends. Each day “Hachi” would accompany Ueno, a professor at the Tokyo Imperial University, to the train station when he left for work. Upon returning, the professor would find the dog patiently waiting with tail wagging. This spirited routine continued until one fateful day in 1925, when the professor was taken ill on the job in Tokyo, and regrettably dies before he could return home.
The movie Hachi moves the story to the northeast in the United States. Richard Gere plays the professor who befriends the puppy Hachi (“He didn’t choose Hachi, Hachi chose him,” his grandson tells his school class.)
Earlier this week I watched the movie. And the tears flowed without restraint. After the movie I cannot stop crying. (Yes, I’m a sucker for movies that tug the heart. I admit that I even cried watching E.T. It’s fair to say that I may not be the most objective film critic. I saw one reviewer call the Hachi film “nothing but slushy emotion.” But that’s okay with me. In fact, count me in. After the movie I felt tenderhearted and knew that–for whatever reason–I wanted to live in that kind of world.)
Even so, I give myself a reality check for what I am feeling and why, and then it hits me that I can’t tell a soul about my afternoon of tears without coming face-to-face with who I am pretending not to be and the energy it requires to maintain that image.
Can I let the tears flow? Or, do I need to figure them out? I do know this: we live in a world that discourages (and disparages) the discomfort.
Just like Jacob, we learn early to be distrustful (wary, guarded) about…
whatever is out of place…
whatever seems inappropriate…
whatever is excessive…
whatever is inexplicable…
or whatever may be laced with sorrow.
After a recent workshop for two church staffs–where we spent the morning playing, coloring and sending Frog and Toad letters to one another–one of the staff members was overheard, while leaving the church, “Well, I wonder what that was all about?” “Well,” said the other, “At least we didn’t have to go to work.”
Of course I laughed when I heard about it. But then, I had to wonder why it bothered me so. And I had to admit that perhaps there is part of me that is still a boy, and the boy is still afraid.
Afraid of being misunderstood.
Afraid of being unseen.
Afraid of being unheard.
Afraid that this Terry is not enough.
Afraid, like Jacob, of being dispensable.
So, what is my choice? I can work harder at the projection of the Terry I want people to see. Or, I can learn to embrace this real life by letting–or allowing–all of the feelings in.
For nine years, Hachi went to a place where love sustained him. Where his heart led him. To a place where he knew he would find or meet love. That his master did not arrive did not stop Hachi. His devotion, his intention to live each day seeking love, and without fear, sustained him.
Fear says, “I’ll make you safe.”
Love says, “You are safe.”
But here’s the deal: If you live from the heart, it may (or will) hurt. You may be misunderstood. You may be called crazy. People will shake their heads (or, like Hachi, pat you on the head) and remind you, “He’s not coming back.”
It doesn’t matter who we are, there are times when we are certain that we are not enough. What we say is not enough. The work we do is not enough. How long we wait is not enough.
Even so, I want to know, in my heart–like Hachi, like Jacob–that fear is not the final word.
We’ve had another Sunday without rain. This means another garden day. After weeks of unrelenting rain, these are the days that remind us why we live here. My favorite part about spring is the miracles of rebirth. The first bloom of Iris Reticulata–velvety purple–pushed up through sodden leaves. Narcissus shoots out of the ground. The white buds on the Hellebore (Lenten Rose) eager and immaculate. The magic of the garden–like all good stories–filled with honesty, vulnerability, moments of forgiveness and redemption.
Note: Jacob’s story adapted from Tara Brach’s book, Unconditional Acceptance
Note: The photo–January Full Moon–thanks to Sabbath Moment reader Kenny Wickline
POEMS AND PRAYERS
Give back your heart to itself, to the stranger who has loved you all your life,
whom you ignored for another, who knows you by heart. Derek Walcott
Saint Francis and the Sow
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing…
Galway Kinnell (excerpt from the poem Saint Francis and the Sow)
We give thanks for places of simplicity and peace;
Let us find such a place within ourselves.
We give thanks for places of refuge and beauty;
Let us find such a place within ourselves.
We give thanks for places of nature’s truth and freedom
Of joy, inspiration and renewal,
Places where all creatures may find acceptance and belonging
Let us search for these places;
In the world, in ourselves and in others.
Let us restore them.
Let us strengthen and protect them and let us create them.
May we mend this outer world according to the truth of our inner life
And may our souls be shaped and nourished by nature’s eternal wisdom.
Amen. Michael Leunig