Monday, January 25, 2010


[a snow junco]
It was interesting to find myself speaking to a woman who was born fully hermaphoridite yesterday. I knew Linda, know her through my church, which is especially welcoming to folks who are GLBT - gay, lesbian, bi-, transsexual. But I didn't know Linda's story. She is in transition now from a life spent as a man, according to a doctor's determination in 1955. Better to sew up the vagina, the doctor thought, than to cut off the penis. To Linda right now, her gender identity is everything. I recall reading a female Buddhist practitioner's story of confronting her Teacher about the fact that there were no women in his lineage.

"Oh," he said. "So you are a woman." I have thought about that deeply ever since. Yes, I ama woman. But one day even that will be taken from me.

I spent Saturday morning with an 84-year-old woman who is in the hospital, alas, with a broken hip. This is so often the beginning of the end for people, who then get pneumonia. I imagine she knows this.

This woman and I have a long history, again through the Unitarian church. She often came to sit in my meditation groups, running in late, disrupting everything with a demand to sit right beside me so she could hear, then struggling to put new batteries in her hearing aids. Well, it used to get in the way of my agenda and irritate me. But some people just keep falling on your path. What, are you going to do, kick them aside?

Some weeks ago when she was in another hospitalization, she asked for me. My usual conditioned aversion fell away like a thin shell, outgrown. In the presence of death, we can touch our humanity, though I know some people don't. A chaplain told me that these things usually either bring family together or rip them apart. This woman is making the great transition, though she hardly bear to think of it now. "I don't know when this is going to end," she said to me, in a moment of vulnerability. "Or if it's going to end."

Well, this has only one end, however old you are. At times like this I feel lucky that I met Buddhism. Isn't there a story that when the Buddha saw death for the first time, he said, "Cursed be birth, if this is what it comes down to in the end"? He was not yet enlightened then.

Transitions. The big ones have to do with losing our identity. George learning to be Linda. Another Linda letting go of her whole lifetime with all its memories, trying to reconcile herself to the mistakes and accept the losses. Not able to walk anymore. Not able to make decisions for herself on how she will live. Death is the great loss of who we "are" and everything we own. Back to the Five Remembrances. Number four is the frightening one, isn't it?
Everything and everyone I hold dear will one day be taken from me.
Everything. We will end up with nothing, like refugees in Haiti, seeing even our most beloved ones recede from us as we set sail.

Last night Tom and I watched a lovely Japanese film titled Departures, which features a young man who takes up a career of preparing the dead for cremation through a very respectful traditional sort of ceremony that reminded me very much of Soto Zen practice. At one of the viewings a husband throws himself on the coffin, crying again and again, "I'm sorry." Too late now.

Just for a moment, a beautiful little snow junco appeared on a bare branch outside my study window. Charcoal gray overcoat, white shirt. How you wish you could hold him in your hand for a moment and feel his tiny twig-like feet, his miraculous little heartbeat. I usually see Juncos on the ground outside my kitchen window, not up in the air. I do know the ivy offers a warm shelter to some birds. A temporary home.


  1. Sorry to be silly, but where you placed 'yesterday' in the first sentence, as opposed to after 'woman,' makes it very funny. But, as always, poignant post. We had quite a time at our temple once trying to work out how to ordain a post-op transgendered person.

  2. This is a great post. I've been thinking about it all day. Just before I read it, I ran into my father outside his workplace and he told me my grandmother isn't doing too well. I thought about all the times I'd been out to visit her and my grandfather (in Western PA), and also burying my grandfather last winter, and that feeling that her time was short, as was our time to spend out there with her - or anyone for that matter. There's letting go of a loved one, but so often letting go of a place as well.

  3. "Charcoal gray overcoat, white shirt. How you wish you could hold him in your hand for a moment and feel his tiny twig-like feet, his miraculous little heartbeat."

    so precious. so precious it hurts.

  4. Bitterroot - Darn, there goes another of my attachments, to the idea that I "have" really good grammar. The sentence is an Ouch,or as you say, silly. Thanks for pointing it out. Maybe I won't do that again (this week). And thank you Nathan and Jomon. Getting these three comments is like seeing friendly faces at breakfast.