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Living Life Well: All things must pass

Living Life Well: All things must pass


By Jim Shere

As I write this, it’s a pretty spring afternoon on the deck of my cabin, above Sonoma Creek at Jack London Village, here in our sweet Glen Ellen in the Valley of the Moon. It’s so easy just now to be grateful for this life that I live. “Living Life Well” has been the running title of this monthly column in the Kenwood Press for over 10 years now, and it’s always been written with that motif in the back of my mind. And yet, living life well never ignores the poignant, transient nature of things. Consider the smell of the earth after a recent rain, no longer parched but moistened, and sending the delectable aroma known as petrichor into the air — the fragrance of change.

Recently, coming down a steep grade out on Bennett Valley Road — a heritage country road with no shoulders — I overcorrected to avoid an oncoming car. My front right tire slipped off the edge of the asphalt into the ditch and, losing control, I traveled a dozen yards or so before striking a tree. The car, of course, was totaled, but I was happily uninjured — this time. Abrupt accidents such as this always interrupt our assumptions; lives can be utterly changed, or lost. Life itself, we know but ignore, is tenuous, precarious; and yet something ageless is produced by the rise and fall of our individual lives, brief particles that drive the enduring, traveling wave of civilization.

Meanwhile, terrible things continue to happen. As I wrote last month, there is a deep, collective grief for all the refugees that stream from conflicts and bad governments in so many parts of the world, and a grief for all those who cannot escape but must remain. The strong people of Ukraine — the refugees who escape their horrible war, and the others who stay behind to defend their country — none of them capitulate. Living life well neither ignores wickedness where it is found, nor is it content with the way things simply are. To ignore these things is to be ignorant of them, and to be content is to give them tacit approval.

It’s true enough that we have also committed the same crimes we now find Russia guilty of, and in particular Putin — who remains aloof as of this writing, sequestered and with strikingly clean hands and fingernails. We too have been young, and many of us ignorant and pitiless; some of us still are. We know what it is like to bully our way through playgrounds that we’ve turned into battlegrounds. We know the heady exhilaration of victory and triumph over weaker ones, and as a society we had once thought this appropriate, and only natural.

We had invoked the 19th-century Darwinian shibboleth of the survival of the fittest with our Manifest Destiny, but it is neither a right nor is it natural — it is wicked, and it is wrong. The work of a democracy includes the care and protection of minorities by the majority, which is in turn made up of countless minorities. Flocks of birds in flight seldom collide with one another, for each one recognizes and accounts for its neighbors. Some of us have grown to know the damage to others and to ourselves caused by our contrarian belligerence — demanding our way, and suffering from it. Some of us have come to understand how the integrity of a life lived well is eroded by such cynicism.

I’m currently at work on a poem cycle based upon the classic Japanese poem Hojoki, also known as Visions of a Torn World. Written at the end of the 12th century, at the close of a golden age and the outset of a dark time that would last hundreds of years, it tells of the series of cataclysms that disrupted Japanese society within seven terribly brief years. They endured a catastrophic fire that destroyed most of the capital, a drought, a devastating disease, famine, earthquakes, great storms, and finally a political turmoil that ended in civil war and the collapse of their government. The poem has as its theme the proper attitude to have when the world is falling to pieces — living life well in a world being torn apart.

We cannot avoid, yet ought not become overwhelmed by the events taking place in our world. Autocracies established by tyrants become inevitably brittle over time, while democracies are made more resilient — if less efficient — by the dispersal of authority throughout the population. The top-down organization of the Russian army, for example, clearly struggles in its attempt to invade the bottom-up grassroots nature of the people of Ukraine. Colonists must always work terribly hard when they desire to take the land of the indigenous.

There are cities in Ukraine that are now destroyed, where homes and avenues had once been richly filled with lives lived fully and well. Hopes were kindled there, and triumphs celebrated. Now all that is gone, but not the memories and not the resolve, sheltered as they are in the hearts and minds of those who remain — conscious and accounting for one another, and consulting the map of grief with its four coordinates: anger, sadness, forgiveness, and gratitude.

I’m sitting this afternoon on the deck of my cabin, where I have seen my clients for almost 19 years now, and take in this day with gratitude — the mallards and herons that occupy the stream below and the hawks that fly above the great oak that shelters me — and I hear distant happy voices of people climbing Chauvet’s Hill in the park beyond. I measure the gradually increasing tilt of my building toward the stream below, gently twisting as it leans upon a crumbling pilaster beneath its northeast corner. Here and now, I understand that none of these details are permanent.

Last week I learned that I must move from here next month, to find another good place to talk with people about the importance of their lives — because this fine old structure, my cabin, is now considered no longer safe. It will soon be dismantled, and its parts recycled for reuse in new ways. And I will move on.

I think just now of the opening lines in Kamo no Chomei’s Hojoki (my rendition):

This Stream always flows through each one of us towards an immense and inevitable Sea.

The current is always constant, continuing, although the water will always change; and where cascades fall into pools bubbles appear, and then burst. So it is with people, and the homes of this world in which they live.