‘Let all sorrows ripen in me,’ said Shantideva, the Buddhist saint. ‘We help them ripen by passing them through our hearts . . . Making good, rich compost out of all that grief . . . so that we can learn from it, embracing our larger, collective knowing.’ (Active Hope, Joanna Macy & Chris Johnson, 74)
The Ripened Sorrow
Three years ago, it was not sorrow, with its slow, reflective, and oft-times melancholy mood. No: it was grief: shocking and raw. J left this side of heaven for the other. That summer a great and graceful generosity had me attending a conference in the U.S. which meant I had spent a few serendipitous days visiting. Something of his deep delight and superlative satisfaction with the gifts of life —”Best ever!”— allowed me to know he was really living the truth of what we dream of doing: living as if heaven is real, right here & now. It allowed me, too, I realize in retrospect, to prepare on some level for the transition. Weeks later I got word of his passing.
I am thinking of J lately as I have just had occasion to return to his home (one of two he ever lived in). Knowing I would return I almost could not bear the thought of his (actual) absence. While I live far away, I am able to hold him in my mind as ever I did. His frequent letters are sorely missed, but in time their lack has been absorbed into the Way of Things. I come back to find, not so much an absence, but a changed presence. The energy in the house is sweet and calm. In some way, I believe, this is how sorrow must feel when it is ripened. Of course, there are still moments when the loss smarts, but more often there are stories and laughter and the sense of a memory that lives on in love—the true witness of a life well lived.
The Ripening Sorrow
Sitting on my sun lounger looking out over the Hudson River and toward the mountains on the other side, I felt the pangs of the loss. My hand just does not feel the same. It is just a small thing, but I feel this fresh absence keenly. A few weeks ago a silver ring I have worn for thirty years vanished in a freak incident involving jet lag, a strenuous yoga workout and a loss of my usual sensitivity to things around me. A sort of ecstasy I suppose you could call it.
The ring came to me, a gift from my grandparents, in the wake of a life-threatening traffic accident I’d had weeks before my 16th birthday. That event was, I see in retrospect, a kind of an undoing . . . the kind of undoing necessary to an awakening. At least that is the story I carried with me, lightly, with the ring on which my initials were engraved. The name my parents chose for me, my grandmother’s name, my family name. One begins to know one’s name again upon resurrection. When one has leaned up against the limit, support circles take on added meaning: who you are matters in new ways. It was, then, a welcome back.
Now the ring has gone: that precious, irreplaceable thing and part of me is bereft. (Another part of me, I’ll admit, is poised . . . to be surprised, to find it again. St. Antony and I have a good history together, after all. But the shape of this anticipation has an odd feel, almost like I must lose all hope of finding it in order that it be revealed again.) A hundred times a day I experience its absence. What was once an unconscious movement of my thumb across my palm to my ring finger is now a painful reminder. There is no silver solace any more.
Retracting my gaze from the distant hills and the water I see, at an angle, a cave-like grotto in which stands a statue of the risen Lord. From my spot on the lounger, though, all that is visible is a hand reaching out. Somehow this appeals to my sense of humour and I grudgingly feel a shift and allow myself a crooked smile. All this dwelling on my right hand and I am put in touch with Another’s. This hand can span any abyss, I believe. I reach out my right hand to take it and am reminded that I am, losses and sorrows small and large, (already-and-not-yet) whole.