Life is not orderly. No matter how we try to make life so, right in the middle of it we die, lose a leg, fall in love, drop a jar of applesauce (Natalie Goldberg, 1990, p. xiii).
Is it only Zen Buddhism that can imagine the items in this list as equivalent? Goldberg refers often to her guide and teacher Katagiri Roshi as a touchstone (it seems) for grounding her own wild mind in order to write with focus. There is always
so much in the way,
so much more to say, or
to say first (to set the stage), or
during (because life is lived simultaneously), or
to realize one needs not to say (because it isn’t the point, but a tangent, or a defense, or . . .
part of some other story, some other focus, an alternative point-of-view with its own distinct historical aim . . .)
How are we to live when those we love die, or move away, or decide not to be close with us anymore? How do we cope and un-learn the violences of the past, whether from the powerlessness of being children, the negligence or disinterest of people around us, or the systematic structuring of disadvantage and lack of opportunity? What do we do with pain?
Kenneth Burke argues there are two broad choices for accepting whatever life throws at us: we can interpret life as comic – not funny ha ha but amusing in our inevitably bumbling attempts to deal with events, situations, and circumstances absolutely beyond the scope of our control; or we can interpret life as tragic – full of terribly sad experiences, troubling emotions, and one bad drama after another.
When some bad crap has happened to ya, it seems hard to find the humor in it. I keep trying. And oh lordy, say some of my friends, am I ever a trial! Plenty of folk have way, way better skills than me. Living in a comic frame is a skill, btw – to find the humor in tough things without being mean or sarcastic or otherwise insulting, belittling, or small-hearted. I really hate the small meannesses (and am disgusted when I recognize them in myself; which does happen.) :-/
I use a teaching activity sometimes that requires participants to sort a bunch of actions from “least” to “most” – then they have to put a label on the characteristic that organizes the continuum. I am not saying these gestures cannot ever be used in jest, as humor or teasing for relationship-building, but there is a structural quality in which the smallest act of intentional harm sets the stage for each successively larger one.
What if you’re on the receiving end? Even if the harm is unintentional, it still hurts. And when it is on purpose? OUCH! Or perhaps the pain is simply unavoidable. Now what? We have to not only learn how to go on, we must speak the words that lead us “on” into the possibilities of a future that we want to desire.
When Goldberg met Roshi for the first time (actually their second meeting, she had not been impressed the first time around!), he was tending an orchid he’d kept alive for three weeks. Goldberg was astonished.
This applies to anything:
the memories and spirit of a friend.