(by Jenny Sasser, based on a first version written in 2007)
The goose with the deformed beak, the one we’ve seen wandering yard-to-yard through the neighborhood, just minutes ago took a walk through my front room! He entered through the back door and caught Happy the dog and me completely off-guard. I was resting on the couch, trying to stay cool and calm in the heat of summer, a few days into a lengthy convalescence after a major health crisis.
The canine and the water fowl engage in a parabolic orbit around the coffee table. I get off the couch slowly, grab the dog and deposit him in the bedroom behind a closed door. He seems shocked by the goose visitor, evidenced by the fact that he doesn’t hurl himself against the bedroom door in an attempt to escape and re-enter the fray. Our visitor, meanwhile, avails herself (?) to Happy’s water bowl – she seems pleased to discover water and is very thirsty. She takes a bit of a bath, as well. I watch her for a few minutes, noting that she has shit twice on the living room hardwood floor (better that, than on the rug!), and I snap a couple of cell-phone photos to confirm I’m not having a post-hospitalization hallucination. Then I invite the goose to return to the outside world, this time through the front door.
The goose camps out on the unshaded front stoop all day, and it is a hot day. While I attempt to nap, the goose taps with its deformed beak on the glass section of the screen door: tap tap…tap tap…tap tap. Before the unexpected arrival of my goose friend, I had been reading The wild braid: A poet reflects on a century in the garden, by Stanley Kunitz. I had just finished a passage in which he described befriending a family of owls:
One day, as I stood under a great chestnut tree deep in the center of the woods, I heard rustling in the branches. I looked up and saw a family of owls, a mother and four fledglings, all on one branch…I vowed I would become a friend of theirs, and realized I must not disturb them in any way. (p. 30)
Kunitz later befriends the owl family and to such an extent that eventually they use his arm as transportation back to his farmhouse attic, their new home from where they come and go as they please for the rest of their lives. He goes on to say, “My encounter with this family of owls was one of the most intimate of all my experiences with the animal world, a world I would consider to be part of our own world, too” (p. 30).
A week prior to the time I started writing this essay I had been hospitalized for my “twirly guts,” as my student Darcy calls my ailment. A much coarser and humorous designation that the official nomenclature: “transient jejunal intussusception without lead-point.”
When I started reading the Kunitz book I didn’t realize it would be so much about frailty, pain, aging, mortality, and impermanence. It was an intense and beautiful text to be reading while in the throes of being confronted with my own frailty, pain, aging, mortality and impermanence, not to mention reading it on heels of reading the Annie Dillard text, For the time being, which I read while in the hospital undergoing many medical tests and procedures. (Dillard’s text is a strangely assembled accounting of many of the most terrible, tragic things that can befall human beings, and how these experiences shape us, connect us, and remind us of the profundity of the human journey.)
Back to Kunitz—there’s a particularly apt passage that I resonated to strongly in which he reflects upon his recovery from a near-miss with death:
I feel I experienced a kind of resurrection and I’m absolutely grateful for having emerged and yet I have no delusions. I’ve not been promised anything but a period of survival, that’s all. There is no pledge of survival beyond that. I was changing stations, that’s it. It was an interesting experiment, but I don’t want to repeat it!” (p. 120)
As I am preparing to take my daily walk (and as I am washing the goose shit off the front stoop) I have the thought: All of this – my brush with serious illness, my mom’s ruptured cerebral aneurysm, Gramma’s near death – is practice, preparation for the times to come, the unavoidable periods of infirmity, vulnerability, shifting energy, illness that can’t be avoided or withstood, the ultimate demise of the embodied self, death.
(It is quite difficult sitting in meditation with all of this physical pain in my gut.)
At the sangha yesterday, our teacher uses the phrase “gentle and precise” to describe the quality of our attention.
I have been called back to the medical center in a couple of weeks, this time not for more tests connected to my “twirly guts,” but for a re-check mammogram for my left breast. When I saw that the medical center had left me a voicemail message, I hoped it would be a reminder for the upcoming colonoscopy, but I had a feeling that it would bring news of my breasts. So I returned the nurse’s call and she informed me that I had to come back in for another mammogram – but not specifically why. I felt hot greasy waves in my gut, I felt buzzing around my edges, I felt diminished energetically. I emailed my doctor for more detailed information, and she assured me that a re-check is quite routine especially for first-time mammography recipients because there isn’t a history of images to compare, no baseline yet, and also because younger women have “dense” breast tissue. She said not to worry but definitely to follow-up as soon as possible. Ah, another medical mixed-message!
One of my anxious thoughts was--How can I plan for the future, take on new projects, dream about things, when I am living with all of this uncertainty about my body’s soundness?
Trying to muddle through this thought on my own made me feel temporarily insane, and so I did something not too common for me, especially not when I’m feeling isolated in physical pain: I reached out to a friend for some help. And in the process of trying to articulate how afraid I was feeling, and the thoughts at the center of my fear, I had a realization (or, perhaps, more accurately, a remembrance): The incontrovertible truth is that all of us humans have to live with existential uncertainty. I mean, think about it, really think about it--traveling through the life course is in part about making plans for a future we have no way of knowing for sure we will get to live! Every time we plan, when we take a few steps forward in our lives, when we make a commitment to a project or a person, we are placing our faith in this mostly unknown but hoped for future. And we are placing faith in our selves as unfolding beings, in our ongoing becoming. How beautiful, and brave, yes?
Maybe the “gentle and precise” practice really comes down to being present, whatever might be happening for me at any given moment in my body, embodied as fully and consciously (and courageously and audaciously) as I can be, in the here and now, for the time being.