sunyata: surrender, release, and engagement

I had other plans for what I wanted to write this today- well, last week, or at all, really. That’s how things go, sometimes.

In the last few months, two members of my knitting/ disabled community have died, and rather suddenly, too, at that. It’s strange, how those two communities cross over, I suppose, but that’s not what I wanted to talk about. When you get engaged in disability rights, disability politics, chronic illness activism groups, it isn’t as though this is the sort of thing that’s first and foremost in your head: I’m getting deeply involved with a lot of people who aren’t well, just like me: that is part and parcel of the work, so you expect things like covering for folks when they have doctor’s visits or undergo lengthy treatments, and everybody pitches in when something medically surprising happens to one of the group, and we all know that some people have certain strengths and medical enhancements. It means other things, too, but that doesn’t always sink in until you bump up on the first self-euthanasia or someone in your community has an organ transplant.

I remember when Talana got her new lungs. Is anybody reading this LSG, past or present? Do you remember all those texts, emails, messages? We were all so excited and nervous, waiting to hear from her family. Hundreds of us, just holding on to hear if she was breathing on her own again yet. That was almost five years ago and I can still feel the agitation of that day, the edginess. I remember looking up how the procedure was done and then closing out my browser, fast, because it rapidly became overwhelming. She only got to keep them for about four years, but those were a good four years.

We lost our friend Beth this weekend. The hows & whys are irrelevant*, in the end; I could write it all out, but does it matter, now that she’s gone? It always seems to be a question strangers ask: “What happened?” I think that’s something of a space-filler or time-eater, more of what we do when we don’t know what to do or say. What happened is that she was here, now she isn’t, and we are heartbroken. What happened is that a Beth-sized hole was torn in the world and there’s nothing to fill it; in this universe, you can neither create nor destroy matter.

I have found that I increasingly rely on my not-faith in these instances. I find myself chanting the Heart Sutra through death & grief: gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha. Gone, gone, utterly gone, gone beyond, yes: nothing can last, change and impermanence are the nature of all things, grasping is futility. This is natural and correct: everything else is ego. This is softer, more understanding, more submissive and paradoxically, more stoic than the earlier ways in which I had been taught to process grief; Aurelius would approve, I’d wager, which is always a good gauge of any approach by me. There is more acceptance, less self-abuse and denial in this approach.

All weekend, I’ve been thinking about how both Talana and Beth were so deeply engaged in their lives: active, creative, thoughtful women who had powerful effects on the world in which they moved. They worked in charity and non-profit efforts, aimed to improve the spaces around them, loved animals, used their hands, let the people around them know how they felt, made friends quickly and easily, and shared their daily experiences, which were somewhat atypical. I feel incredibly fortunate to have known both of them- they were extraordinary people.

There is an urge, in grief, to withdraw; what Sam and I call the “Why did I do this to myself?” compulsion. It’s a very small, sad, thought, but it’s there, that urge not to let yourself extend out, not to allow myself to hurt in this horrible, aching, soul-sick way again. I remember thinking something along those lines after a friend’s suicide in my 20s, and each time, a dull echo of that sentiment creeps back. It’s easy to give in to the sense that sunyata– nothingness, no-one-thing-ness, that state in which all things exist, you and me and everything we love (and everything we do not love, and everything we feel neutral about, too), that state of absolute impermanence and constant change- it’s easy to believe that sunyata can equal futility, hopelessness, pointlessness, when in reality that mutability only works to highlight the unique nature and beauty of every moment and individual.

Beth had a great love for her service dogs, Em and Kasey, and I’ve spent a few hours this weekend with our dog in active mindfulness in an effort to honor my friend. Through mindful meditation and active engagement I can find my own small ways to say goodbye, and, I hope, push back a little against the urge to curl into a ball. I’m making plans to observe the more traditional forms of mourning, as those are useful in their own ways, but I think the best way to show my love for these friends, to give witness to their brief but brilliant lives and the ways in which they affected not just me, but the world they lived in is continued, increased engagement in our world and community.

It’s been a sad few months. I know that some of you also knew Beth (I hope you aren’t learning this news through me; I waited specifically to avoid that, but if so, I’m very, very sorry) and I may see some of you later this week at services; not the reunion anyone wanted, but that is what these things are good for.

Regardless, readers, hoping all is well with you and yours, especially now, whether we know one another or not.

*-If you knew Beth H. personally, of course, the hows and whys are absolutely not irrelevant. Get in touch, I’d be happy to talk to you privately, if you’re short on information/ need a long- distance hug. 


  One thought on “sunyata: surrender, release, and engagement

  1. February 27, 2017 at 7:55 pm

    I’m so sorry for your loss. I know the words don’t do anything, they don’t even echo on the computer. But I care. We lost a friend last month. He had struggled with kidney failure, dialysis, that scene, for about 20 years. He finally got a transplant that worked and had a good five years. He got pneumonia, and with the transplant drugs compromising his immune system, it was pretty much a done deal. So I can pretend a little to imagine what you’re feeling. Just a little, though, since none of us is a mind reader.

    • February 27, 2017 at 8:27 pm

      Oh, Tan. It’s such a roller coaster, with the transplant, the afterparty, the lull, the aftermath. My condolences.

  2. February 27, 2017 at 8:12 pm

    I am so sorry for your losses. That sentence alone doesn’t seem substantial enough to cover what I felt when I read your post. As another member of the chronically ill community, I know well the feeling of diminishment when a chronic friend or family member dies.

    • February 28, 2017 at 8:23 pm

      Thank you, very much. (That also seems sort of flat and hollow here, but I do appreciate it very much, especially within my own peer group. ❤️)

  3. Sheila
    February 27, 2017 at 8:26 pm

    This is very apropos…my beloved sister, best friend, knitting buddy, died very suddenly after a fall: pulmonary embolus from a broken arm. A Shirley-shaped hole is in all our lives…her daughter is holding on by her fingernails, my elderly parents are tough, but much quieter and sadder. Mostly we just keep saying, how can this be true? She was so alive, having survived Addison’s disease, breast cancer, and a previous huge DVT. I like your gate, gate, paragate, thing…although, it still seems illogical that anyone so vital,and alive can be gone. Thank you for this column.

    • February 28, 2017 at 8:24 pm

      Sheila, I’m so very sorry for your loss. Love and empathy to you and your family.

  4. February 27, 2017 at 9:19 pm

    I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing Beth or Talana personally, but I have fond memories of both of them from back in the LSG hey-day. ❤

    My Nana passed away very suddenly back in September. She and I were quite close, and the utter gone-ness of her still hits me regularly, though with not as much of a wallop as it originally did. It's like getting used to a gap where a tooth was pulled – it's acutely painful at first and you do your best not to poke at it, not to explore it, because you know it's just going to hurt all over again. After a while things heal a bit and you start probing a little, getting the new measure of things. You may never fully be at ease with the gap, but eventually it stops feeling so foreign and just becomes another part of you.

    • February 28, 2017 at 8:26 pm

      I’m so sorry for your loss, friend. It’s the space that’s the worst part, right? You’re exactly right with that missing tooth analogy, that way things turn into the new normal. ❤️

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