No trespassing

One of the central concepts in Buddhist philosophy is that of impermanence. The Buddha said people suffer because they cling to things, beings, and experiences that pass away. Life is great as long as you have and hold the things you love, but nothing gold can stay. Children grow up and move away, our bodies age and grow old, and even our newest and shiniest belongings wear out and lose their sheen.

Toppled crane

Impermanence isn’t a tenet you have to believe; like gravity, it’s a natural law you’ll notice if you open your eyes. This past weekend, J and I saw the ruins from a massive fire that recently destroyed a luxury apartment complex in nearby Waltham. (Fortunately, since the complex was still under construction, nobody was living there.) It was stunning to see a hulking pile of rubble where there had recently been five multistory buildings.

Singed trees

J and I weren’t the only ones looking at the fire’s aftermath: every car we saw pulling into a nearby municipal parking lot slowed down to take a look as it passed. We all know, intellectually, that we can lose everything we own in an instant, but this lesson doesn’t hit home until you see the charred wreckage of someone else’s dream.

The Wall at Central Square

The Buddha wasn’t a god; he was a man with eyes in his head. Any person with the ability to observe the world can deduce the simple facts the Buddha taught: suffering exists, things are impermanent, and the quality of our contentment isn’t necessarily related to our external circumstances. There are unhappy people in paradise and people who find contentment in hell. All things change, but there sits at the root of our nature certain enduring tendencies: the grain in the wood of personality, the slant of our inclination and the direction of our days.

The Wall at Central Square

The Buddha wasn’t a god; he was a man with eyes in his head. Nothing the Buddha taught needs to be taken on faith: you can test anything he said against your own experience, against what you yourself have seen and lived. If you don’t believe that suffering exists, scan the headlines in the nearest newspaper, tune into your favorite TV news channel, or ask the person next to you how things are going, really. Or try sitting with nothing but your own thoughts for ten, fifteen, or thirty minutes: as long as you can stand. How long does it take to sink beneath the skin of surface contentment to find the existential angst beneath?

The Wall at Central Square

If you don’t believe things are impermanent, try loving a child, an old person, or an elderly pet. Whenever you see someone change, grow, or age before your very eyes, you’re seeing impermanence in action. Or take a long view of your own relationships and your own self. How many of the people you loved ten, fifteen, or twenty years ago are exactly the same now as they were then? Take a good, honest look in the mirror. How have you yourself changed over the past decade? Even the most stubborn, entrenched personalities grow old, grow sick, and die.

The Wall at Central Square

The Buddha wasn’t a fortune teller; he simply was observant. He was, as I keep telling you, a man with eyes in his head. He closely observed the people around him, and he carefully monitored the coming and going of his own thoughts. The Buddha was like Isaac Newton sitting beneath an apple tree: he didn’t see anything particularly unusual, but he had the intelligence to notice the patterns that underlie the seemingly random nature of our days. Apples fall and seasons change. If you don’t believe me, go sit under an apple tree and see for yourself.

The Wall at Central Square

One morning this week, I wrote my journal pages outside, sitting at our backyard patio table. The bird feeder was empty, so there wasn’t the usual flapping, energetic throng of birds, but still there were squirrels foraging overhead, robins singing in the neighbors’ yard, and chipmunks scurrying through dead leaves. There wasn’t a single moment in even my quiet backyard that was truly quiet: there was a constant soundtrack of birdsong, animal rustlings, and insect humming.

The Wall at Central Square

You don’t have to set foot outside—you don’t have to move from wherever you’re reading these words—to experience the constant activity that is impermanence in action. Shut your eyes and turn your attention inward to where your thoughts chatter without ceasing. Try to follow the flow of your own thoughts: the way they inevitably jump from one thing to another. Even when the world around you is quiet and serene, your mind is agile and electric, jumping from one thought to another like a squirrel leaping from branch to branch. People erroneously think that meditation is about “stilling the thoughts,” as if this were possible. Stilling your thoughts is as possible as stilling your own heartbeat or the stopping the flow of blood in your veins. Even if you could do it, why would you want to?

The Wall at Central Square

Several weeks ago I spent two hours writing in downtown Boston at rush hour. I sat in a café facing a wall of windows with a clear view of a steady stream of people walking down the sidewalks on either side of a narrow one-way street. Occasionally, there was a burst of vehicular activity: at one point, several cars, a taxi , and a police SUV cruised down the street, followed by a lull in traffic. Although the cars moved in sporadic bursts, the flow of pedestrians was constant: people walking singly, in pairs, or loose groups; people talking on phones, gesturing to friends, or pointing to landmarks. One man stopped to take a picture on his phone, then three people passed in a kind of parade, each one steering a vendor’s pushcart: lemonade, hot dogs, Italian ice. Each person who passed was on an errand known only to them, and this activity never stopped during the two full hours I observed it. Trying to stop the rush hour flow of people walking, cars moving, and cyclists pedaling is impossible, as this activity is simply the nature of a city.

The Wall at Central Square

So is the nature of our minds. Our mind is a road at rush hour, with a constant traffic of thoughts moving past. Sometimes these thoughts come singly, one after the other, and sometimes they arrive in bursts of activity. Sometimes these thoughts slow and quiet, and we think we’ve reached the end of them…but inevitably they return, always arriving from unknown origins and wending toward unspoken destinations.

The Wall at Central Square

Sometimes our thoughts get stuck and we find ourselves endlessly obsessing over a single idea that returns again and again like a car that keeps circling the same block. But just as it’s impossible to count much less stop every single person that passes down a busy city street, it is impossible to stop the stream of our own thoughts. Thinking is the mind’s job, so it’s both foolish and futile to try to stop it. Why not try to cover your ears, stopper your nose, or paste your eyes shut?

The Wall at Central Square

The contentment that comes with meditation doesn’t come from stopping one’s thoughts; it comes from making peace with them. As I sat typing on my laptop and watching the stream of people pass by that rush hour coffee shop, I had no quarrel with any of them. If I had been sitting in traffic, I would have wanted it to move faster or slower: I would have had an interest in controlling it. But as a mere observer watching the people who pass, I didn’t have to worry about their pace, direction, or destination. When you simply observe your thoughts move through your mind like people passing down the street, there’s no need to worry over them. They’ll find their own way without any interference from you.

The Wall at Central Square

It isn’t our thoughts themselves but our impulse to control our thoughts that drives us crazy. Because the Buddha had eyes in his head, he realized this. If you spend time watching your thoughts, you’ll quickly realize that crazy thoughts, calm thoughts, happy thoughts, and angry thoughts all come and go. These thoughts arise and pass away without reason: there’s no need to try to excuse or explain them, just as there’s no need to excuse or explain the passing of people and vehicles during rush hour.

The Wall at Central Square

We suffer when we cling to impermanent things, and that includes thoughts. If we cling to the idea of “baby,” we’ll suffer when our child grows into an adolescent then adult. If we cling to the idea of “youth,” we’ll suffer when we see our bodies gray and wrinkle. If we cling to the idea “I am a good person,” we’ll suffer when angry, lustful, or selfish thoughts arise. If we cling to the idea “Meditation will make me peaceful,” we’ll suffer when we find our minds to be noisy with distractions.

The Wall at Central Square

The Buddha realized that all things, including our thoughts, are impermanent because he himself watched them pass. It was an observation anyone with eyes in their head could have made. Right now, look around at the people who pass, then look inside to the ebb and flow of your own thoughts. What can you hold? What can you take with you after you’re gone? If you have eyes in your head, you too will see the whole world is passing, and the only instant we can claim is the very moment at hand.

Asiatic dayflower

Anyone who is a teacher, child, or parent knows that August marks the beginning of the end of summer. August is bittersweet because you know the end is coming: you see the ads for back-to-school, and you become vaguely aware of the shortening of days, your nighttime forays to catch fireflies ending earlier and earlier even though you aren’t yet bounded by school-night bedtimes.

Feather on leaf

August marks the beginning of the end because the natural world can continue its unbridled fecundity only so long: the natural world can’t continue summer’s frenetic pace indefinitely. August heralds the end of summer because the sounds of insects—cicadas and crickets alike—grow louder, faster, and more insistent, and there is a limit to how emphatic even insects can sing. An object can spin increasingly faster for only so long: eventually a spinning top will spin itself out. August presages the end of summer because anything that spends itself with the unbridled fury of June and July can’t possibly last: as Robert Frost himself said, nothing gold can stay.

Day-lily

Last year from July into August, we watched a colony of bald-faced hornets build a papery nest in our back yard, beside the gate to our backyard dog pen. Even in July I knew that by winter, all but the queen would be dead, and the queen herself would burrow and hibernate underground. From July into August last year, we watched those hornets build and repair their nest with dogged persistence, reshaping and resurfacing it whenever summer showers stripped away entire sections. This time last year, I knew those hornets would die come winter, but what I didn’t know then was that they’d never make it until winter, growing so aggressive in September that we’d hire an exterminator to kill them in an instant, their once-precious nest left behind as an empty shell.

Bee on hydrangea

Human consciousness is both a blessing and a curse. Presumably animals do not know they are mortal; at least, this is what we tell ourselves. We humans, on the other hand, know our days are numbered, but we do everything in our power to deny and ignore that fact. And yet, any creature that devotes itself with one-pointed focus to the tending of its sister’s young—any creature that devotes itself with one-pointed focus to the storing of food for a winter that might never come, or for the nutrition of future young that might never be born—must have some sense of mortality, or at least of impending want, even if that creature’s end comes more quickly than anyone envisioned. No creature who is completely oblivious to impermanence would struggle so mightily to build, sustain, and defend, industry serving as a bulwark against extinction.

Budding

Now that it’s June, the backyard is deepening into its summer hues. As I type this, a lone cottontail is hopping around the backyard, darting in and out of the irises and spiderwort. Earlier, I saw two cottontails side by side, intermittently eating and chasing one another: signs that we’ll have even more cottontails. In June, everything seems geared to continuance, rebirth, and renewal: the idea that things roll on.

Bumblebee on spirea

In June, summer lures you into thinking that what you’re experiencing now will somehow last, that the sun will shine this way for ever. This time of year lulls us into trust and complacency, with the trials of winter seeming very far away. Who in June really believes that summer will ever end? The whole point of June is to relax and slip into trusting complacency and the languid assumption that the sun will continue to shine and the grass will continue to grow green.

Day lily

At the beginning of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Thoreau lifts a line from the treaties Europeans made with Native Americans, in which their agreement was promised to last as long as rivers flow and grasses grow. We know from history that European treaties with Native Americans never lasted long; apparently rivers don’t flow forever nor does grass grow long. As poetic as this promise might sound, it is (after all) misleading. Rivers flow and grasses grow for only a season: in winter, rivers freeze and grasses die. The phrasing of these treaties, in other words, is strictly seasonal, an eternally ephemeral thing. Summertime treaties are couched in optimism, the season we make undying promises despite the fact that everything eventually ends.

Blue hydrangea

But it’s difficult to believe that in June: difficult to believe that the next crop of baby cottontails, still a sparkle in their parents’ brown, goat-like eyes, will someday themselves die. As I type these words on a hot June day, my bare feet browned from the sun, it’s difficult to believe that I too, eventually, will die.

Three roses

In June, the Buddha’s teachings about suffering and impermanence seem misguided and even cruel: who would be heartless enough to ruin a day at the beach—nasty enough to rain on someone’s parade—by reminding them at the height of summer that these days don’t last? In summer, the days like sunlight stretch and linger long: these are the days we wish would never end because we don’t actually believe they can. June is the season of immortality, when nature pumps out life and humans make promises and plans as if there were no tomorrow: is it any accident that so many couples get married in June? In June, we dance and fiddle like grasshoppers, unable to conceive (in the midst of so much conception) that these happy days could ever end.

Midflight

The secret to summer sweetness, however, is to cherish these days as precious: that is the intention behind the Buddha’s words. Buddha never intended to rain on anyone’s parade with his insistence that things are impermanent; instead, he wanted to remind us that parades are a passing thing. Don’t be fooled by a seemingly endless array of floats and bands and marchers, for this too finishes in finale. Keep your eyes open at every instant because every parade—and every parade watcher—eventually marches away.

Victorian grief

The other day, I saw a link to photos of the storm damage at Mount Auburn Cemetery: apparently they lost approximately fifteen trees in last week’s hurricane, one of which was an oak tree older than the cemetery itself. It seemed particularly sad to see photos of toppled trees looming over tombstones, a garden of remembrance turned into a scene of natural devastation. In the larger scheme, fifteen toppled trees at a cemetery don’t matter much: Hurricane Sandy caused widespread suffering, injury, and the loss of both life and property, and there was no human harm at Mount Auburn since all the folks there are already dead. But a landscape like Mount Auburn is designed to create the illusion of immortality—perpetual care—so any damage or devastation that ruins that effect is particularly sad. What place is there for loss and change in a landscape intentionally crafted to create a pastoral image of eternity?

Richard Duca sculpture

I’ve been visiting Mount Auburn for over fifteen years, since I lived in Cambridge in the mid-1990s. When I first started going to Mount Auburn, I saw it as primarily a birding destination, riding the bus or my bike to the cemetery from Central Square, where I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center. On spring mornings when I didn’t have classes to teach, I’d go on early morning walks led by members of the Brookline Bird Club, walking at the front of the group in order to eavesdrop on whatever birds the quiet leaders were listening to, all the chips and twitters of migrating warblers sounding the same to my lead ears. As 9:00 a.m. approached, the group gradually waned as members left to find their cars and head off to work, but I’d stay until the end, finally heading back to the bus or my bike so I could ride into Harvard Square for breakfast.

Sleeping angel

I’d always go to the Greenhouse Café, where I’d sit by myself a tiny, crowded table: all the space they could afford for a party of one. The more sociable members of the BBC lingered at the back of the group and presumably went off to have breakfast together, but either busing or biking to the Greenhouse Café by myself was simply part of my preferred birding ritual. While I sat by myself waiting for my breakfast—fried egg and cheese on a toasted bagel with a side of the Greenhouse Café’s thin-sliced home fries—I’d write up that morning’s field notes: the birds I’d seen, the birds I’d heard, and any other noteworthy insights I’d gleaned by walking at the head rather than the tail of the group, like how to tell oaks from maples from a distance in the spring (oaks leaf later).

Winding path

I no longer have those field notebooks, I’ve forgotten most of the lore I learned on those walks, and the Greenhouse Café has since closed. In the larger scheme of things, these losses are insubstantial, as most our heartaches are. But through all the intervening years, Mount Auburn has remained the same: the place where I took the bus or biked from Central Square is the same as the place where I now journey by car from Newton. In all the intervening years, Mount Auburn Cemetery has preserved the illusion of permanence: the same weathered stones, the same spring bird walks, the same faithful throng of birdwatchers breaking naturally into clusters of concentration, with the quiet birders whose ears are perpetually attuned to chirps and twitters at the head of the group, and the chatty conversationalists in the rear. Whether or not I have the time now to join them, those spring walks at Mount Auburn continue without me, and I take comfort in that fact.

Winslow Homer's grave

I don’t have any family or friends who “live” at Mount Auburn, but this past spring I went on a walk with Claire Walker Leslie, whose parents are buried there. Mount Auburn figures prominently in Claire’s nature journals and published books: there’s no better place in Cambridge to go birding, admire trees, or spend an afternoon quietly sketching. Mount Auburn is a garden of remembrance for me because I’ve spent so much time there: my memories of the cemetery center around what I’ve done, not whom I’ve visited. But for those who have family or friends interred at Mount Auburn, the cemetery’s pull is bittersweet: a place of tranquil beauty that is also a landscape of loss.

Mourning his master

When I took that walk with Claire Walker Leslie, I hung back from the group at one point to stop at the stone I’ve claimed as Reggie’s grave. I had no desire to share why this particular stone—the grave of a stranger—wields a particular pull: any communing I do there is no different from the quiet remembrance I observe when doing the morning dishes and contemplating an empty dog pen. Cemeteries are special, I think, because they (like memorials) are a place where it’s appropriate to observe one’s private grief in public, so the shared landscape we walk with others is personalized according to our own proclivities. Although you and I might stroll the same cemetery together, our emotional understanding of that landscape is necessarily unique.

Mary Baker Eddy monument

It’s important to have spaces set aside for the private business of grief and remembrance, just as it’s important to have spaces dedicated to prayer and worship. Although you and I might enter the same house of worship, our spiritual experience of that sanctuary might be distinctly different. Both cemeteries and houses of worship are wide enough, I think, to tolerate such radical diversity: both cemeteries and houses of worship are large enough to hold our collective hopes and heartbreaks. It saddens me to know the landscape at Mount Auburn Cemetery will be different the next time I go there, marred by stumps and limb-scars, but it heartens me to think the place itself will endure. Storms may rage and trees may fall, but remembrance lives on.

I took these photos last year, during a Christmas Day stroll at Mount Auburn Cemetery, which I’d blogged here.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

Every time I pass through our dining room, I see it: a rugged and irregular brick-sized rock, slightly oblong in shape with jutting angles and edges, that we keep on a shelf along with other knickknacks. Years ago, when he first moved into the house we now share, J found this rock in what is now our backyard dog-pen, half buried in the acidic, pine-needled soil. J unearthed, cleaned, and then brought into the house this otherwise ordinary field stone—a rock among rocks—because of what was prominently written upon it in white paint: “Sylvia Fish, Died October 1949.” This curious artifact is now displayed on our dining room bookshelf, in a sheltered spot where the dogs won’t soil it and we humans can frequently see it: a tombstone among tchotchkes.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

It’s eerie to think of the ground we walk upon as being potentially haunted—our backyard a burial ground—but what footstep of earth isn’t overshadowed with grief? Wherever we live, others have lived before—there’s no escaping the inevitability of history—and wherever others have lived, others have suffered, too. What kind of innocence, ignorance, or naivety would insist that one’s own heartaches are the first to have transpired in this house, this neighborhood, this earth or universe? It’s a simple empirical fact—one supported by ample evidence—that whatever basic human emotions I experience today have been experienced countless times by others. There’s nothing new under the sun, and that most certainly applies to love, heartache, gratitude, and loss.

What was once a beloved pet’s final resting place is now a pen where our two dogs run, sniff, and relieve themselves. This fenced area is a bare, weed-studded patch of soft soil fringed with tall pine trees: nothing special. Several years ago, it was the enclosed nursery for at least one nest of cottontail rabbits, each one of three babies finding their individual way into our beagle’s mouth before J was able to tell her to drop it; it is also a space where our Labrador retriever regularly bounds after birds and squirrels. We occasionally hear great-horned and screech owls calling from this unkempt border of our backyard—predators presumably passing through on their way to larger, lonelier patches of pines—and in the morning when I watch our birdfeeder, I occasionally see a red-tailed hawk zoom through, looking for careless squirrels.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

If this humble corner of an otherwise unremarkable suburban yard harbors the graves of the dearly departed, what else lurks without our knowledge in our backyards or under our feet? Are even our own yards a mystery, the Great Questions camping without invitation right outside our door?

I find myself wondering not about Sylvia Fish herself but the nameless child who loved her enough to insist upon a proper burial. Sylvia Fish died in October, 1949: more than sixty years ago. Sylvia Fish has long since disappeared, her flesh and fins transmogrified into silt and soil, and the unknown child who named and then mourned Sylvia is herself old now, too. Who was this child who loved then mourned a goldfish some sixty years ago, and does she have any recollection now of what may have been her first initiation in the human fellowship of grief? Is there anyone who remembers and still grieves over Sylvia, or was her life as cheap and insignificant as the price tag on a goldfish tank would suggest?

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

Goldfish are not long-lived creatures, but we give them to children, thereby inuring them to loss. Giving a child a goldfish is like giving a child a balloon, a soap-bubble, or something similarly short-lived: it is a guarantee of heartbreak. One of my most vivid memories of childhood involves me crying in my parents’ front yard after a helium balloon my father had tied to my wrist came loose and floated away, leaving me nothing but a limp string. If a child can love even an inanimate object with all her heart, why give that child a thing that is guaranteed to float away? Why not give her a more durable plaything: when asked by a child for bread—something perishable and prone to staleness—why not give instead a stone that will endure beyond even her recollection?

There is something in our human nature that clings desperately to things that are both fragile and ephemeral. This is the cause of human suffering, but it is also the seed of human compassion. Imagine a world where we fully recognized the impermanence of all created things and responded accordingly, refusing to become attached to creatures who will invariably grow old, sicken, and die. This would be a world where we didn’t fall in love, didn’t cherish children, didn’t adopt pets, and didn’t acquire souvenirs with mere sentimental value. This would be a world where children didn’t name their goldfish and teddy bears, and a world where adults didn’t name their cars. It would be, in other words, an unthinkable place: a place entirely unlike our own world because it lacked both sorrow and joy.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

We give our children goldfish not despite their short life spans but because of them. Taking care of a goldfish teaches a child responsibility, and grieving a goldfish teaches a child compassion. As goes Sylvia, so goes the whole mortal world. Watching a news report focused on war, pestilence, or natural disaster, we see so many Sylvias, each one hastening toward her inevitable end. Our first experience of loss is an essential rite of passage, an initiation into the human race. If you can grieve a goldfish, then you’ve learned what it means to be human, to be mortal, to be part of the larger sentient family.

On a peg by our back door, J has collected the collars of cats we have lost to old age: first Boomer, then Tony, then after him Shadow. Upstairs in a drawer, I have Reggie’s collar carefully tucked away with his leash, a curling wisp of fur still clinging to his dog-tags. Keeping the collars of dead pets is both a sentimental act and a quintessential kind of clinging, and I wouldn’t give it up for anything. Does a creature who is fondly remembered ever truly die? Does some part of a beloved pet rise again when you revisit their mementos, and does some aspect of Sylvia Fish swim on whenever I see her stone and subsequently remember her, a testament to a world where we care for and mourn even the most insignificant creatures?

Today’s photos of goldfish come from the Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses at Wellesley College, which J and I visited last March.

Pink eyes

This morning I was back on the beat in Cambridge, where as always there were new sights to see. By way of proof, compare the above shot to the same span of brick pictured here and here. My, how you’ve grown!