Saturday, July 18, 2009

Living in Bali

In June, 2000 I did a thought exercise I read about somewhere:
The designer Milton Glaser assigned his students at the School of Visual Arts: design a perfect day for yourself five years from now.
I set myself down to do this in one nonstop session, the way I was keeping my journal in those days. The exercise caught my imagination as I wrote, and I am surprised, looking back, how it creates a whole community, an ideal civic order of cooperation and neighborliness. It was a life of no work and harmony on a sort of fantasy island, as I then thought of Bali - as a culture where the arts are sacred and pervade life. In that design, we lived in a sort of gated community where nothing evil could enter.

My fantasy began with a house with glass walls - such as I now live in. It sat in a small community of close neighbors - which I now live in. We are not on a beach, it's true, but on a woods, next best thing - our own little woods. What we "own" goes steeply down to the ravine.

We have come a long, long way since then, but it has not been an island paradise. Life has been punctuated with illness and deaths. Yet, as the poet Robert Frost said, "Earth's the right place for love." This life is what we have, complete with all that.

The photo I chose today marks one instructive event that took place two or three years ago. My grandson Otto was visiting, and Tom was gone. It was a pleasant summer day, warm and with no wind, and Otto and I were at the dining room table playing a board game, maybe "Life" (I'm not making that up) when we heard an odd sound I identified as a loud swooshing. My peripheral vision caught something happening to my right: a huge bouquet of leaves falling past the window to our right. We blinked, stood up and went to the window. The back yard was covered with green leaves springing out from a branch. A branch of the maple had broken off and fallen.

I remember that I just kept on saying, "Oh my God." Utterly astonished. It is interesting to think that it didn't seem to rattle Otto at all - maybe when you're seven years old, a whole lot of things are inexplicable and surprising. But he obediently went with me to inspect the back yard. The branch had not scraped a window or poked through a porch screen. Nothing was harmed. We circled the house, had to go across the street to see just where the branch had broken off, high in the tree.

There are moments when our conception of a safe, secure reality is torn apart, and we see the true nature of life - how a branch can tear off when there is no wind, no apparent disease in the tree. There are reasons somewhere, maybe in the unseen world, the 90% that scientists say our senses do not detect. Maybe the buddhas whose spirits are thought to be everywhere gathered to push that branch down just to break me out of my complacency and give me an amazing dharma lesson. But it is also true that organic life is complex, and birth always leads to death. And death is not necessarily announced. Again and again, it cuts through our belief that we have things in order.

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