Leave-Taking, and Life and Death
Is every leave-taking at once an exploration of life and preparation for death? Perhaps.
“Our experience of death has become disembodied. The corpus has vanished from the most corporeal of our rituals—and we are left standing with our hands outstretched and taut but with no counterweight to bear, like the man on the riverbank holding air.” – from “The Letting Go,” The New York Times Magazine, August 28,2011, by Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, and professor of medical oncology at Columbia University.
Add: Standing with your feet about a shoulder width apart, knees bent slightly, and arms, rather than taut, held loosely, shoulders rounded, the entire body relaxed, as we “hold air” and breathe deeply in the tai chi way–expanding and collapsing “qi” with each breath. Begin by expanding the area just below the bellybutton up through the diaphragm with each intake of breath.
This posture also describes the basic martial arts and tai chi stance sometimes called “post” or the “wuji (empty) posture.”*
It looks a little like tree hugging. I visualize that man on the riverbank doing just that, holding emptiness in his arms.
Is the emptiness held in our outstretched arms expressive of loss and/or some kind of lack of corporeality? Or, is it an emptiness that prepares us for the flow of life, for its many yin/yang oscillations? Could it also be creating a space for hugging?
And might it indicate, rather than being cut off from the body, being more fully present in the body as well as present to current time and place and space?
Traveling may have more in common with the ebbs and flow of daily living. My preparations for traveling have, in part, been creating a wuji-space in my life, I’ve progressively emptied my existence of much of the thing-ness surrounding me for the last couple of years, all the “stuff” of daily life.
Well, not all. I’ll carry a backpack and a shoulder bag on my journey. And, quite naturally, whatever personal, metaphorical “baggage” follows along.
This added space feels like an increase of openness in which to better breathe my daily existence.
I know, though, that as soon as I “hit the road,” I’ll also re-enter all of the less quiet and less open encounters of daily living. To Buddhists, this represents the return of the “maya” of living and the multiple perspectives each being brings to the illusion. Personally, I don’t see daily living as an illusion, but as embodied being and a chance to accomplish what we are here for, that which can only be realized in this state of being.
Perhaps, I will, to some small degree, be able to bring to future encounters some of the wuji-space now being cultivated. Perhaps.
The journey, then, is not only about escape, but about moving toward new ways of being.
But Why Write About It?
Someone asked, rather pointedly, why I felt the need to write about it all, meaning to blog about the journey. Good question!
I admit to being caught off guard by the question, also a good thing! Attempting to answer the question can lead to fruitful self-examination.
I’m afraid I initially answered this question rather weakly. I pulled out of my “answer bag” a pat reply borrowed from a creative writing class I took this past summer. There, it was intended to be a rallying point and an assertion. We were learning to think of ourselves as writers.
However, I’d framed my use of this answer as a query, saying in my smallest, mostly private whisper-squeak voice:
“(Because) I’m a writer?”
By making the assertion into a question, it shows I’m not entirely sure—not sure that I’m a writer and not sure what I’m doing either.
I have to admit that I rather like the uncertainty. I could say the same about the entire trip. Any bit of uncertainty that gets plugged into my “plans” gladdens and adds a dose of openness to the unknown. After all, that’s part of the quest–to encounter the unknown as challenge and inspiration.
I’m not entirely certain, either, why I decided to write about “it all.” I did read something recently that resonated. In her book, Above Use Only Sky, Essays by Marion Winik. Marion, writer and NPR commentator who’d lived in Austin and moved away, wrote:
“But while looking inward is obviously a key element of the personal essay or memoir, I think the narcissism of this genre is often overstated. Just as the householder begins taking care of the world by sweeping her porch (or at least planning to sweep her porch), the personal essayist looks for the truths that connect us all in the details of her own history, her experience of gender or loss or travel. The further paradox is that the more idiosyncratic these experiences seem, and the more specific the details of their telling, the more clearly they seem to strike the universal chord.”
I do believe our personal experiences often resonate with those of others. We are, after all, fellow human beings.
As to traveling, there may be a bit of nomad in all of us. As a species, we were originally hunter-gatherers, used to seeking out fresh new fields of fruit and game for our survival on a regular basis. A few groups of homo sapiens still live this way.
America was peopled originally by nomadic tribes, different groups of American Indians, before Europeans immigrated to this land. On their arrival and through their subsequent dominance, Europeans and other immigrants established new ways of life, superimposed upon this nomadic past and, in part, retaining a nomadic spirit.
For example, we can see the nomadic past in our “cowboy-Indian ways.” While the “Westward Ho!” aspect occupied only a brief period of American history, it still informs what we do and are as Americans.
More settled natures also evolved. Though we continue to perennially look “Westward” to “new frontiers,” we also established ranches, farms, estates, towns, cities, states. And ultimately, founded a nation of many peoples, uniting immigrant groups into One Nation.
I believe some tribal ways were absorbed into our greater American life. Among nations, we still value and pride ourselves on America’s wide open spaces. We have even nationalized and memorialized these beauties in songs, poetry, essays, and in our National Parks system as well as countless state, county, and local parks.
American public lands are held in common for all to enjoy. This is certainly one of our American strengths, inherited from a nomadic past that traversed and appreciated the open land.
Thus, the land itself speaks to our common endeavors and to our human spirit. As Americans, we are aware that we are rich in natural resources. We take pride in the beauty of the land–bordered as it is by two great oceans, run through by glacial rivers and the Continental Divide of the Rocky Mountains, and strewn with verdant, fertile plains and fields, and enlivened by the varied cultures of our regions, cities and towns.
America the Beautiful! Indeed.
I want to see my country whole again, and at least once more. I want to explore its peoples, varied and diverse, its highways and byways.
Texas is not Oregon nor Minnesota nor Tennessee nor Michigan. True. But each state and each region in these United States is itself unique and worthy of exploration.
I’d like to see all of the States of the Union, but that would take far longer than the six months to a year I’ve allotted for this journey.
Instead, I plan a few short hops and skips across the country, and once into Canada. I’ll go to some places I’ve never been and to familiar places, visiting old friends and family along the way. I hope to get more acquainted with these United States and our citizens, and experience something of the state of our Union at the present historical moment.
In sum, preparing for this journey, I have considered both life and death.
Getting rid of an excess of belongings leaves less for others to deal with after I’m gone, both on the journey and from this life. This is part of what has been accomplished in advance of the journey.
However, I’m not exactly expecting to die anytime soon–though you never know, do you? I’m preparing to live a journey that wakes me up to the small, bright matters of everyday life that might have gotten dulled by settling in to my day-to-day existence.
I know from experience that travel does this for me. It’s also one way of realizing a rather Biblical promise to “live more abundantly.”
I’m writing about it, in part, to internalize the outward journey, to remember and extend the journey—outwardly and inwardly–and, to share the journey with you.
• For more information on the wuji posture, see Meditation in Motion and Four Seasons Tai Chi: http://eric-taichi.blogspot.com/2011/07/wuji-posture-in-tai-chi-taiji.html#comment-form and http://www.fourseasonstaichi.com