Living is easy with eyes closed/ misunderstanding all you see, sang John Lennon, our family guru.
I remember wondering what that meant, when I was a child and could neither fathom the longness of life, nor the shortness of it. Perhaps I still do not know what any of it means, but there have been instances when my eyes flutter open for a moment, yes, just a moment, so that I feel the immensity of what is behind the veil. In those moments I feel too the biting loss of innocence, until the veil drops again, my eyes close once again, and living is easy all over again.
We live as if there is no death. It’s easier this way, of course, and our culture helps us, cocooning us in filtered images of youth. We leave the sickness and death to the hospitals, where those whose lives are devoted to delaying death must create an inner wall between the death of patients and the death of loved ones. We have words to cover up death, speaking of someone who has “passed”, who is “no longer with us,” as if anyone we love could no longer be with us. We forget how love suffuses our very being and cannot pass away, cannot be taken away. Our Western culture gives us images of the grim reaper, hooded, dark, someone we do not want to know, who stands in the shadows waiting to steal. But Buddhist cultures understand death to be a part of life in the same way that the left is a part of the right: an equal partner. As the left could not be without the right, life is never without death. In darkness there lives light.
What if we allow the darkness to show us the light? The Toltec warriors of ancient Mexico were taught to live with the understanding that death is their friend, and advisor, the one to ask the important questions: How should I live? and, What do I do with all this time so freely given to me? Through this conversation, the warrior is guided to live the life that honors the death. They are taught to live with eyes open, understanding what they see.
And yet, the most difficult moments of our lives are in witnessing the greatest loss. Words do not console. There is no preparation, only the fallout, the remembrance of a beautiful and completed life. Later comes the irrepressible longing for someone now intangible. And as we stand alone, bereft, we hear the resounding reminder of what is missing. Memories become ever more tangible to make up for the physical loss, so substantial that the ending of one life can be an unalterable mark in another’s journey. These are the jarring moments when the eyes are forced open, when living is difficult, but these are too the moments when it is possible to understand what is seen.
There was a small stretch of my life where my eyes were opened again, and again, then again, in a fluttering of vision and understanding that came from many directions. I was 22, at that cusp of graduation when futures are brightly imminent. At an age when lives are presumed to be long, I was suddenly aware both of life’s brevity and of life’s broadness. It was the first time I saw the thinness between life and death, the shortness of life. And in other unveilings, I saw too the scope of life, the stories and currents that draw people through the kind of lives that are easy to live with eyes closed. Within those moments of inspired sight, living was both particularly difficult and particularly inviting. Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I marveled: to sleep, perchance to dream. Later, when my eyes were closed again for easy living, I found that I too had become a dreamer.
Only now am I beginning to wonder of the longness of life, and of the sweeps of time that weigh down those who have already lived the broadness of life, have already been so many iterations of themselves. My dreams are changing, and I along with them.
Each of us evolves, year to year, decade to decade, in constant flux with the currents of life. With eyes closed, living within the narrow container of our own interests, it is easy to forget how our lives overlap and integrate in incredible and unpredictable ways; it is easy to forget that we have changed or may change again, that this is just one story of many. Friends enter and exit as they will, some becoming family, some becoming strangers. And families become fluid concepts, held together by the same something that sometimes opens our eyes to life, to the stages of this dance, of this evolution. We are not soloists. We are neither our stories nor our costumes. There is some core that remains inextinguishable, something that runs truer than our name or our face, something like the dancer who tells many stories in many costumes and is yet herself within it all.
Perhaps the question of a long life is the question of legacy, of remembrance. Perhaps it is the end of a long life that raises these questions, of what is left, and what is life. But at the closing of a life, when eyes are open and living is difficult, time no longer matters because we can finally understand what we see. There was no evolution, in that there is nothing sequential anymore. Linearity is lost and the memories overlap, the stories and the costumes blur, so all that is left is the dancer, eyes wide open, lit both by darkness and by light.