As I write this, a major hurricane is heading towards the gulf coast of Florida. People are preparing as best they can, but damaging high winds and unprecedented flooding is predicted, and mandatory evacuations are ordered. And yet, in spite of dire warnings and an official order, some people will decide to stay. They would rather risk death than leave the comfort of home.
“I just don’t know,” answered one old woman who was asked by a cable news reporter if she would leave. “I don’t know where I would go.”
She looked stark and sad, standing on the steps of a home that looked as frail as she did. The camera cut from her face to a beach scene, white sand, blue sky. It looked like paradise, the reporter told viewers in an ominous-sounding over voice. But this would soon change.
“We can all understand,” the reporter intoned, as the camera panned the shore and out to sea. “Home is where we feel comfortable. But sometimes we have to go.”
Easy for you to say, I thought. I guessed that the reporter had an ease in this world that the old woman did not have. She probably lacked the resources to go anywhere but an emergency shelter.
“It’s always the poor who suffer the most in these storms,” my mother, who was a Florida resident, once told me over the phone. “They haven’t got much to start with and then they lose that.”
The rich always seem to have the high ground, I agreed. It warmed my heart to hear my mother express this view. This was the way she used to be, emotionally intelligent, speaking out against injustice.
“The poor don’t need your rags. Take these back and bring them something decent.” She once said this to a wealthy woman who donated a bag of worn-out old clothes to a clothing drive. I winced at the time. But I remembered and treasured the statement. I took great comfort in thinking of my mother as the kind of person who was not afraid to speak out.
She was very shy, averse to standing out or to taking risks. But she was also fiercely maternal and intuitive and emotionally wise. Faced with injustice, she spoke out.
My mother did and said a great many things, of course, and some of those statements missed the mark. She called a car’s accelerator an “exhilerator,” for example. Other words were less endearing. Still, she was my person, as the saying goes, far from perfect but a refuge, a reliable source of comfort in hard times.
And then she changed.
What does it mean to be a person? Inevitably we think of people as individuals. A Google search supported by an experimental generative AI defines personhood as a state of being characterized by properties including “intelligence, the capacity to speak a language, creativity, the ability to make moral judgments, consciousness, a soul, self-awareness….” A person, Google’s A.I. informed me, is also determined by social forms, by legal and kinship relationships. As relational as we humans are, we experience ourselves and our loved ones as separate beings who can be ours to possess—our personal source of comfort and security—only to discover that these seemingly solid individuals are subject to change. They can be lost.
My mother changed dramatically after her home was destroyed in a hurricane. A small beachfront condo that my parents owned was also severely damaged so they moved in with my sister, who lived in a house nearby. When the storm came my mother had already been in what I called her “reclining years.” Frail and in pain, she’d spend most of her waking hours in a big cushy recliner near a window and the phone. I loved her calls.
“I just had a feeling that I should call,” she would say. And often it would be just the time to be reminded that I was more than the bad day at work, the fight with the friend, the defining sorrow.
“Honey, ever since you were five years old you tested how brave you could be.” She asked me if I remembered wearing her dome-shaped Jell-O mold on my head like a medieval helmet. I did. I remembered pretending to go forth into some righteous battle, being lion-hearted while others fell back. Now I saw it through her eyes, a little girl springing out from behind the couch wearing things from the kitchen on her head.
The A.I.-enhanced search engine didn’t mention this but people are also made of stories. The stories I cherished about my mother had to do with seeing through and coming through, taking a brave stand in the face of loss. And that spark did still glow at times.
“I’m too old to cry over things,” she said, calling after she surveyed the damage from the hurricane. But it was as if winter had come over my mother. The life force slowly withdrew from her weakening body, and she gently withdrew from us. I tried to buoy her up, reminding her that she had many things to look forward to. But what was happening seemed an unstoppable process, like the earth tilting away from the sun. She wanted to know that her children and grandchildren were well but she didn’t delight in the nutty details anymore.
“I want things to be the way they used to be,” she said. “I want to do the things I used to do.”
Visiting her before she died, I asked her what she considered to be the most important thing in life. “Relationships,” she said without a second of hesitation. “Love.” The other things that we think are important come and go, and things can change really fast.
I understood that the house was the tip of the iceberg, that all of the faculties and routines she took comfort in were vanishing, her eyesight, her breath, that reliable heart. I understood that she was drawing inward, preparing for the journey away from here that was to come, but it still broke my heart.
How can we possibly find lasting joy in a world where the people we love
can melt away? How can we be happy or comfortable knowing that we, too, and all we work so hard to cultivate will pass away?
The day after my mother’s funeral, I woke up to a vision. I was standing on a shore looking out to sea, my heart bursting with sorrow. I watched a Viking long boat carry my mother out to sea. How I loved her! How I longed to make her stay! Yet, as I watched that ship disappear beyond a gorgeous sunset, I understood something about love and loss and letting go.
I could have dismissed it as a dream—the animation of one of the stories that came to my mother from her ancestors. But it opened my heart, reminding me with fierce and loving force that my mother and I could never really be separated. She was part of my story. She—and my ancestors—dwelled together with me, in me, in the depths of my being. Understanding this brought quiet joy.
Years after my mother died, a major hurricane hit our home in the Northeast. My daughter’s then-boyfriend was visiting from England—his first trip to New York. High winds knocked down power lines and we found ourselves huddled together around a wood-burning stove. The young man was and is a theoretical physicist, at that time a fellow at the University of Oxford. By the light of the fire, I asked him what his knowledge of the mathematical basis of the universe, his practice conceiving the inconceivable, had taught him about who we are and what really matters.
“No one is special,” he said immediately. He spent his days thinking about the true vastness of reality. He announced that he had no patience for anyone who felt that they or anyone else stood out, or could stand out for long. But the vision of that Viking long boat showed me that not being special or standing apart also means that no one is separate from that vastness. What is most deeply true about us is not our seeming individuality but our part in a greater mystery.
The root meaning of understand means to be in the midst of, to live with. It is not the property of the thinking mind alone, but the deeper knowing that takes heart and experience. As I write this, we anticipate a hurricane. It is possible that it will be unprecedented in its force. The people in its path scramble to prepare. Among new bulletins, I read that sharks have a built-in barometer that allows them to sense a hurricane coming and to head for deeper, safer water hours and maybe even days ahead of the storm. Efforts are being made to attach monitors to these sharks so that scientists can learn what they know.
There is an understanding that comes when we leave the isolation of our thinking minds and return to our senses. Our senses are very limited compared to those of sharks and other animals, yet remembering to be aware of them opens us up to the life around us, awakening presence. This presence—this embodied, living, loving awareness—is fluid and open. In those moments when we are fully present, it dawns on us that it is just this experience, this capacity to witness and respond, that is our source of light, or bond with this changing world.
“Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” This is the understanding of the heart. Life goes on. Nothing real can be destroyed. Love never dies. This way of knowing may be our superpower, our way of heading to deeper water. The thinking mind moves from hope to hope, from fear to fear. This is perfectly natural. We want to be safe and happy. But in spite of all our planning and all our best efforts, people and relationships and all manner of precious things are lost. We, too, will get sick and age and die. As we live, if we are lucky, we learn to trade comfort and happiness for a deeper joy.
The Middle English root of the word “happiness” is “happy,” which means fortune, chance, happenstance, what happens. In virtually every Indo-European language the root is the same. It is built into the language and perhaps our genes to equate happiness with what happens to us. Yet no matter how well we plan or how privileged we are, things happen that are outside our control. There really is no higher ground.
The ground is moving under all our feet. Everything and everyone is impermanent. The homes and relationships and people–even the land and climate–that gave us comfort will change and be lost. How can we find joy in such a world? We can learn to touch the earth of our common human experience–our common living experience. Smirti in Sanskrit, sati in Pali, and Drengpa in Tibetan. All these words mean to remember. They point towards a kind of understanding that isn’t thought but re-membered or re-collected—that draws on the whole of ourselves.
In the midst of all our suffering, while bracing for a hurricane or watching a loved one die, we may discover, at moments, a light inside us that doesn’t depend on outside circumstances. We don’t tend to notice it when things are going well. It can seem like little more than a faint glow, which may be why it is most visible in a state of inner stillness. We may not experience it as light but as the warmth of the sun on our skin or of the coffee mug against our cold hands. We may experience it as the dawning recognition that there is an awareness in us that flows like a ship or a shark out past the storm and beyond. ◆
This piece is excerpted from the Winter 2023 issue of Parabola, COMFORT & JOY. You can find the full issue on our online store.