A Visit To My Past

March 15, 2010


The rain came. I rolled a joint, and kicked back in the hammock. Through the trees, the sky shifted and the clouds turn pink. I pulled my knees to my chest, and rocked back and forth. A memory came to me.

Two years ago. I was in a bistro near my house. I sat near the big front window and drank red wine. My eyes watched the sky, the passing people, the flowers blooming across the street. My chest was warm and my cheeks pink. Happy thoughts swirled through me, and I felt light. I was thinking about traveling.

I saw images of India, yoga, meditation. Creativity electrified my heart, and I was full, warm. Yellow was everywhere. Yellow sunlight, yellow love. Answers. Peace.

Two years later, swinging in my hammock, I remembered this with such clarity. The rain poured and the waves crashed, a surprise deluge in the hot season. I closed my eyes and returned to that bistro. I found my younger self sitting in the front window, drinking red wine. I merged into her body. “You did it,” I told her, this girl dreaming about her future. “And it was perfect. Perfect.”

I know that the girl I was then desperately wanted to travel. She stared out that window and willed her spirit into the future. She made it good. She saw visions and cultivated joyous feelings until she was smiling, slightly buzzed, and sure of her decision. Shortly thereafter, she left Seattle, her year-long journey underway.

Back in the hammock, eyes closed, I stayed with that girl for a moment. I reassured her from here, the future, and told her she made the right decision. I let her feel me, and me her. Then I returned.

The rain stopped. The cicadas chirped quietly in the trees. Waves crashed over the rocks, and the air was cool.

So many doors have opened. I am a summer house, sunlight streaming through my windows. Open and free. This year has been transformative and satisfying. Exactly what I wanted. Color and growth and laughter. Freedom and understanding and letting go. Falling in love and trusting life.

Follow your dreams. That is why we are here.


Uncle John

February 27, 2010


Uncle John.

Later in his life, his hair was white, but when we were kids, it was brown, combed back. Dimples when he smiled. Laughing eyes.

He took us on adventures. Cliff-scaling seemed to be a favorite. In the San Juan Islands, my mother clutched my baby brother in her arms and watched Uncle John lead us up the face of a cliff, metal ladder rungs pounded into stone. It seemed so high, but I was only eight, so maybe it wasn’t as life-threatening as I remember. But my mother seems to think it was.

I dreamt about him taking you kids up that cliff years before it ever happened, she said. I was absolutely terrified when I saw it in real life. That John. Climbing up there with you kids…

I remember an aluminum slide at the top of the cliff, connecting one side to the other. The slide bridged an abyss, a crack in the cliff. If you fell off the slide, you’d fall waaay down and be wedged between two rock walls, inaccessible. Perhaps no one would hear your screams.

But we all slid across it successfully and perched on the other side like seagulls, wind in our hair, Mother a speck on the beach.

I recall aspects of John with perfect clarity. On camping trips, he always drank red wine. He laughed and slapped his knees with both hands. His dimples were deep, his eyes sparkling.

John, leaning on one knee, pointing with the finger of his other hand. Making a point, driving home a statement. Philosophy. World history.

John, reflective, pondering a question a child has asked him. Well, I don’t know Sarah Bean. Why do YOU think people have to die?

One of our last conversations took place in his study, at the very top of the house. The walls sloped down on either side, an inverted V. Bookshelves lined the floor, a dizzying array of titles, authors.

Descartes. Aristotle. Plato. Socrates.

War and Peace. 1984. The Grapes of Wrath.

The carpet was soft, sea green. If you stood up too fast with a book in your hand, you’d hit your head. Better to stand in the middle of the room.

John’s desk, a mysterious pipe sitting on it. The occasional smell of skunk in the air.

Potted plants, hanging plants. Plants on bookshelves, obscuring titles.

Exotic lamp shades, stained glass.

And always a jar of Andes mints on the floor.

We sat near the banister. He was advancing in Alzheimer’s by then, wouldn’t be living at home much longer.

So tell me, Sarah Bean, what do you want to do with your life? he asked again, dimples creasing his face.

I want to write, I told him.

Wow, he said, shaking his head in wonder.

That’s great. Just great.

He was so happy, so satisfied, even then. My ambition was exactly his cup of tea.

Like other members of my family, John had a deliciously inappropriate sense of humor. So in that spirit of absurdity, I share with you a moment…

Recently, I was walking through a coconut grove in Goa, India. Uncle John had died a week before on December 16th, my brother John’s birthday.

Birthdays, death days.

Sunlight streamed through the trees, yellow and warm. My flip flops slapped the dirt, and over the hill was the sea.

I had just spoken to my mother. She was coming from one funeral and going to the next. Three days later, she was attending a third.

Three funerals, no weddings.

Uncle John died, then Eunice, my father’s step-mom, and then Mrs. Breen, an old family friend.

Three funerals in one week.

I expected my mom to be a nervous wreck, crying. But she laughed, a sincere laugh. She found the humor in an otherwise black situation.

Can you believe it? she laughed. First I go to one funeral, then the next! And then this weekend, a third! Do I wear the same thing?

At Eunice’s funeral, she told me, they dropped roses on the coffin before it was lowered into the ground. The sky was gray. It was raining.

I’ve never been to a real funeral like that, she said. It was so morbid!

Immorally, perhaps, we laughed. But it felt like the right thing. It was utterly morbid, John, Eunice, and Mrs. Breen all dying in one week, roses on coffins, gray skies.

Walking through the coconut grove, reflecting on this conversation, I suddenly saw John’s face before me, laughing. He always laughed with his head thrown back. So much joy. Appreciating the absurdity of every moment. Life is absurd.

Without speaking, John and I had a dialogue. He was with me as I walked, and we laughed over the absurdity of life, and the absolute absurdity of untimely deaths! He roared with laughter at his own death, perfectly timed to coincide with two others.

Your poor mother, he said, wiping his eyes. What a hell of a week!

I floated through that coconut grove, totally present, light as air. John’s laughter echoed and his dimples were deep. He was with me, because I wanted him to be. It was that simple.

This is joy, I thought. This is what joy feels like.

A strange sentiment perhaps, given the circumstances, but sometimes life is strange. I felt utterly connected, separated from John only by a sheer piece of gauze, nothing more.

Death, what is death? Nothing but a physical void. John was there in spirit, every particle of him. He would always show up for a good laugh.


The Question of Morality

July 31, 2009

Sila.

In Pali, the ancient language of the Buddhist scriptures, this word means ‘morality,’ or ‘living a moral life.’  It implies that one is living a life in accordance with five very basic vows:

1)  Not to kill
2)  Not to steal
3)  Not to tell lies
4)  Not to engage in sexual misconduct
5)  Not to take intoxicating substances

For monks and nuns, these five basic precepts are expanded upon, and depending on the branch of Buddhism (Mahayana, Theravada, Tibetan, Zen, to name just a few), a member of the clergy will have to take dozens, sometimes hundreds of vows on top of these basic five.

It is worth noting that generally (if not always), it is the nuns who must take the highest number of vows.  Apparently women are inherently wicked and unclean, and must be whipped into moral shape by living in accordance with a sometimes mind-boggling number of precepts.

Every time I’ve done a Buddhist meditation course, I am required to take at least the first five precepts for the duration of the course.  In a monastery setting, these vows are easy to keep, unless of course there are an absurd amount of mosquitoes around who are out for your blood.  I confess to having broken the first precept more than once due to these pesky, whining creatures.

In the outside world, the vows are not always so easy to keep.  If you are a social person, chances are you will encounter at least alcohol when you go to a party, or a restaurant, or a wedding.

Sexual misconduct is rampant throughout the world. It shows up in the form of affairs, sexual abuse, and the often prosecuted cases of harassment in the workplace.  Read “Savage Love” once a week to find your own jaw-dropping example.

Lying (or by the Buddhist definition, even speaking slanderously) is everywhere, from small white lies, to ego-boosting tales of personal superiority.  And who hasn’t engaged in a little shit-talking from time to time?

Stealing (or “taking that which is not given”) is easy- every time I break into my sister’s closet without asking, I’m breaking the second precept.

And killing, though hopefully not as prevalent as the previous four, happens constantly, and in some parts of the world, it happens en masse.  Genocide is just a grossly exaggerated, sickening example of what happens when the first precept is broken.  And genocide continues to occur down the ages, raging in our world even today.

One of my problems with Buddhism for so long was this:  Besides telling us that all life is suffering, it told us we had to live a life of morality, which I thought it was so boring.  How do you live an exciting life when you’re not allowed to drink, or steal, or have random one-night stands?  I mean, come on!

Buddhism even says that passion is a vice, on par with greed, anger, or ignorance.  Passion!?  Hello!  So many of us live for passion!  What would life be like without passion?  I could tell you- boring!

But I’m starting to rethink my previous stance.  I’m starting to look beyond the language, and instead watch examples of morality in action.  And they are anything but boring.  I’m not talking about the Dalai Lama, or Thich Nhat Hanh.  I’m talking about real people, young people, who are embodying a life of morality, and who glow more luminously than anyone around them.

Two nights ago I met a girl named Brit.  She is Swiss Australian, with shiny black hair and bright eyes.  She sat quietly in the corner for awhile before I leaned over and asked her a question, and from then on, we spent the whole evening talking.  She is twenty-six years old, and a midwife.

I had a million questions to ask her, as that profession has always fascinated and inspired me.  Midwives bring babies into the world, and help new parents with the transition from pregnancy, to childbirth, to beginning a new life as a family.  I think it is one of the noblest professions on the planet.

As Brit told me about fathers crying in the delivery room, mothers giving birth with no drugs, tragic cases of stillborn babies, and the way nature has designed the female body to be the perfect carrier of new life, I found my throat constricting and tears in my eyes.

When we parted ways that night, I kept seeing Brit’s eyes in my mind, so bright, happy and wise.  She was an old soul.  She sipped tea all night and told me, “If you want to do something in life that will bring you great joy, be a midwife.”  It was so clear to me that she was joyful, that she was on the right path.  And without asking or knowing, I had a strong feeling that Brit probably lives a life of morality.  I just couldn’t see her killing (when her job is to bring life into the world), or stealing, or lying, or getting wasted, or bedding countless men.  I just couldn’t see it.

Today I met a Dutch guy named Tu.  He is a huge dude, but within moments of meeting him, you sense his “gentle giant” quality.  He works with patients of schizophrenia, and films documentaries whose proceeds go towards helping out local charities.  He told us all of this without a trace of ego. Everyone in the small room was leaning forward to hear him speak, asking questions, and regarding him with wide, respectful eyes.

Tu then mentioned that he had recently taken the Tibetan Buddhist “Layman’s Vows.”  These are the vows not to kill, steal, lie, or take intoxicating substances.  He wants to get married and have a family some day, so he didn’t take the vow to remain celibate.

Interestingly, Tu smokes cigarettes, parties all night, and is a favorite with the ladies.  The day he left, one young lady who was particularly taken with him burst into tears.  He’s quite popular.  And upon first glance, he isn’t a guy you would associate with having monkish qualities.  I’ve seen him in the restaurant across the way charming women and laughing heartily nearly every evening.  He’s a “cool” guy, very social and well-liked, but there is something about him that is… different.  He emanates a quality that I have recently begun to recognize as purity.  He doesn’t drink or do drugs, he finds joy in helping those less fortunate than him, and he is at peace with himself.  He’s a wonderful guy to be around.

Brit and Tu are just two people I have met in the last few days who have me rethinking what I previously regarded as a boring, passionless life.  They are beautiful people, and I eat up their wisdom and energy when I am around them.  They are far more alive and interesting than the dreadlocked stoners in the corner passing the joint.  They make me want to be a better person, to write something worth reading, to make a positive difference in people’s lives.  They make me want to be bigger than I am, in an honest, pure way.

Brit may not have tattoos on her back, and loudly broadcasted plans to motorcycle across America like another “hot” girl who hangs out in the same restaurant, but she is calming to be around. I am inspired when I come away from being in her company.

Tu may not kick asses in bar fights, or shave his head to look intimidating, but he is more powerful than any slimy sex-obsessed guy on the street.  These type of people are real helpers in the world, and they continue to give, not just take away.

I don’t know that I’m going to take any Buddhist vows, but I am going to start living my life a bit differently.  I already have.  I might still write racy stories, and take  pride in lookin’ fly when I’m out on the town, but these vices are okay with me. Spiritual evolution happens slowly.

 


Sheila Marie

July 8, 2009

sheila

I am blessed to have a very close family.  Yesterday, I was reading a piece of writing by my cousin Colleen.  It was a beautiful remembrance of our shared cousin, Sheila.  Sheila died several years ago, still a young woman in her thirties.  I have written a lot about Sheila since then.  In some ways, she has become my muse.  When I was taking creative writing classes at university, I found that she crept into my writing quite frequently.  It has been some time since I have sat down to deliberately invoke Sheila Marie on the page, but since reading Colleen’s remembrance, I have been inspired to do so again.  So in the spirit of remembering those who I love, this week I choose to tell you a story about Sheila Marie.

Not long after Sheila’s death, I had a beautiful dream.  In it, we were all on a huge, sloping lawn.  Sheila was running around, so happy, that gorgeous Irish smile on her face.  Our whole family was there: mothers, fathers, cousins, siblings, boyfriends, girlfriends, dogs.  We were having a joyous celebration on this lawn- it was Sheila’s wedding again.

I remember watching her laugh and dance, and thinking to myself:  It’s interesting that Sheila is “dead,” because she is as alive as anyone here.  She is vibrant, and happy, and pulsating the most beautiful energy.  The only thing that makes her “dead” is our belief that she is.  That’s the only thing separating her from us.

But in the dream, there was no separation.  We were all celebrating anew, toasting Sheila’s marriage and beautiful life.  I remember watching her laughing with her head thrown back, her long red hair curly on her back.  She had a white dress on, and a glass of champagne in her hand.  She was almost shimmering as I watched, this translucent figure so bright against the lawn.  And again, I thought: She’s not dead.  That is merely an illusion we believe in.  Sheila is as real as you or me.  She is completely here with us, as much a part of this party as anyone else.  Someday we’ll understand that.

Sheila Marie was a woman of spirit if ever I knew one.  She was so alive.  She was older than I was, and until I was in my twenties, I never really had access to her.  She was always so out of reach, so cool.  When they were growing up, she and her brothers lived with their parents in an enormous old home on Capitol Hill.  At the very top of the house, in the mystery-shrouded attic, Sheila chose to have her bedroom.  I have a memory of being very small and creeping up to that room.  I remember pushing the door open, walking through billowing silk scarves, and emerging into the dark, smoky interior.  Incense burned, and records played.  Sheila and her friends sat on the bed, smoking.  There was a serpent shaped ashtray on the trunk that served as a table.  Sheila patted a cushion on the seat beside her, and invited me in.  I think I crept out backwards and ran, too afraid to enter that den of intoxicating smoke and mirrors.

Sheila was so cool that as her younger cousins, we were all a little afraid of her.  One day, we were going to the park, or the circus, or perhaps the swimming pool.  Grandma told me to run in and get Sheila, but I couldn’t even fathom it.  How could I summon such a person, the coolest girl in the world?  Did she even know who I was?  I turned to Suzy, our other cousin, and passed the orders on to her.  “No!” Suzy said quickly.  “Someone else has to do it!”  I don’t remember who went in to fetch Sheila, or if she just came out herself.  She was like a demi-goddess, her hair shiny and red, her jeans ripped and torn.

Years later, Sheila and I worked together as gardeners, doing landscaping on a private property in Bellevue.  It was then that I got to know her.  She had struggled with drugs for years, and I remember picking weeds side by side in the vegetable garden one day.  I was telling her about a rave I had been to recently, recalling the sparkly swirls I had painted on my cheeks, the lollipops and crazy dancing.  Ecstasy was huge at raves then, and I’m sure she knew it.  She kept digging in the soil, but she turned to me and said, “Sarah, if you ever have questions about drugs, let me know.  I will be totally open and honest with you, and answer any questions that I can.  Please feel free to come to me if you are ever curious about my history, or if you just want advice.  I’m here for you if you need me.”  It was so out of the blue, I was a little surprised.  I never asked her about her history with drugs, because I was too shy.  But her willingness to guide me in the right direction (and I’m sure that is what she would have done) is something that I remember.  She wanted to help me if she had the opportunity.

For a woman I hardly knew, Sheila has remained close to me ever since her death.  She has appeared to me in numerous dreams, and often the theme is the same- Sheila is alive, but we don’t realize it.  She’s just existing on a different plane, and our usual five senses aren’t picking her up.  Her bright smile is the same, and her eyes are the color of pale green apples.  Her red hair blows in the wind, and freckles cross the bridge of her nose.

Surprisingly, I find myself calling on her at what seem like random times.  I asked for her help while I was meditating, and she was with me right away.  She filled the room.  When I was living in my apartment on Capitol Hill, I would sometimes think of her while I was cooking, or find myself talking to her as I bathed.  In some of my highest moments, when I come home from a great night of dancing, or when my plane landed in India, I tell her, “She-she, look, life is good right now.”  I know that she would appreciate those moments more fully than anyone else- she loved to live.

She was a traveler by nature, going to London and Rome, South America and Jamaica.  Perhaps that’s why I find myself calling her to me when I’m in these most distant places- she would love to be here, drinking chai, trekking to waterfalls, listening to reggae.  And so I do.  I think of her and I say, “Sheila, check it out!  Look at that crazy baba with the dreadlocked beard!  Check out the tiny baby who is giggling and burping in joy!  Feel that tropical water, and the way the salt dries on your skin…”  I know she’s with me.  All I have to do is call.

So I’m calling on her right now.  Sheila Marie, my dearest cousin, I’m in India now, and I’m writing about you.  I’m sharing it with the world, or at least with the friends and family who read this.  Many of them know you, and are loving you right now.  Some of them never got the chance to meet you, but they’ve learned a little something about you tonight.  The beautiful Chileans are playing music on the rooftop, and I can hear them beating drums and clapping their hands.  Can you hear it?  Can you feel the tears on my face?  Are you wiping them away?  I think you are.  Are you laughing at me now that I’ve made a mess of myself, and had to blow a gallon of snot out of my nose?  Yes, you are.  I know you are.  Are you reaching out through me, through this writing, and sending love to the people who are reading?  Of course you are.  You are full of love.

Now that Sheila’s with me (and you), I want to say the last thing that’s on my mind.  I feel like I’ve grown up since Sheila died, and in some strange, inexplicable way, we’ve finally become friends.  For most of my life, Sheila was the older, untouchable cousin.  In her later years (although she was still young), I had the opportunity to get to know her.  But it wasn’t until she died, and I began to grow into a woman, that I felt like I could relate to her.  In those moments when I would recall her, or call her to me, I was acutely aware of how grown up I felt, compared to the way I felt when I knew her as a child.  I felt like she admired and respected me now, like I would have been her confidante, and she mine, were she still alive.  I felt a kinship with her, like she was rooting me on as I wrote, or went through relationships, or bought a plane ticket to one foreign country or another.  It’s strange how someone can go on living after their body has passed away.  It’s amazing how a relationship continue to grow after death.

Sheila is with me now, no doubt.  I can feel her over my right shoulder.  I think she’s encouraging me to write this, to remind us all of the dream on the lawn.  No one disappears when they die.  They just change.  They slip behind a sheath, and do their work somewhere else.  She-she is with us, she is dancing, she is laughing, and she is so glad to have been remembered this way.  Death is not the end.  I have no empirical evidence of this, just a deep, intuitive knowing.  Sheila’s face is shining before me right now, her skin bright, her smile encouraging.  She is there, they’re all there.  All you have to do is ask.


Of a Sunny Day

June 18, 2009

Ascend stone steps, wild roses on the vine
Creep past you as you climb and climb and climb
Leave this honking, staring town behind
The apple orchards wait, and they’re divine

Up you go, away into the green
Camouflage has never been so serene
You melt into the trees, a nymph unseen
A single tear rolls down your cheek, pristine

Take the road less traveled, climb this rock
Ah ha!  You’ve found the perfect thinking spot
Beneath the tree, next to the wild pot
The air is cold, the sun beats down- she’s hot!

An inchworm reaches into outer space
He feels and feels until he finds a place
To drop his body and inch, but not in haste
He’s searching for the perfect leaf to taste

Close your eyes and watch the thoughts roll by
As eagles wheel against the summer sky
A face returns, laughing, bowing, shy
It’s memories like these that make you cry

Make space around the images you see
Watch them come and go, breathe evenly
Be like the stone, the butterfly, the tree
Feel the breeze, the sun, the air, just Be.

And then the tears will dry upon your face
You know that life is bathed in perfect grace
That feeling in your heart, I think it’s faith
An inchworm reaches into outer spaceIMG_1497