Wednesday, September 07, 2005

For want of a levee, a kindgom was lost

I have been thinking about some of the losses in New Orleans. Death is the most important loss. Having lost my wife 3 years ago, my awareness of how the survivors feel at such loss is still informed by that. And leaving behind pets, dogs and cats, to almost certain death, and absolutely certain confusion, terror and pain, is a kind of betrayal, necessary though it may have been, that is hard to think about.

Leaving behind friends--well, if they are alive, maybe those contacts can be reestablished.

Becoming homeless, leaving behind houses, the comforts of daily living, privacy, arranging your life away you like it, coffee whenever you feel like making it, is hard, but hopefully--certainly if the rest of us act humanely--new homes can be built and some of this can be restored. Leaving behind jobs and whatever income you had is a source of obvious anxiety. All these losses are apparent to everyone, excepting perhaps the deadened souls who lead our nation.

Leaving behind reminders of who you are and how you have lived, like mementos and photos of loved ones and friends, is less of a loss than those others, maybe, but one that will grow over time.

We Buddhists are supposed to live in the present. Right? Indeed so. In fact, as, Zen teacher Bernie Glassman said to a roomful of people learning about Buddhism, "anyone not living in the present, please stand up."

The present includes our past. Buddhists meditation furthers awareness of impermanence, but at the same time, Zen Buddhists daily recite the names of the "ancestors," the teachers of the Dharma from the time of Siddhartha Gautama Shakyamuni down to the name of the person who taught your own teacher the Dharma. Transmission of the Dharma mind-to-mind for two and a half millennia. Never mind that most of the early part of the list is of dubious historicity--Buddhism is not about history, but (among other things) about how the past is part of the always-changing process of our identity.

The reason I am thinking about this is that I have spent many weeks, now, recovering old photographs from damaged or forgotten negatives and slides dating back over more than 40 years of my life, scanning them and cleaning them up with photoshop, printing them, and putting them into a photo album. I consider it a meditative activity similar to chanting the names of the ancestors. I find that it feels the same. (This may just be me--other people may not feel that way at all, of course.)

Now if I lost that photo album, in a fire, or a flood, and the other photos I have kept of family and friends, and places we have been and things we have done, I would be sorry about it, because it would cut me off from some of the names of the ancestors. The ancestors would still be a part of me, of course, but access to that part of me would be harder, and I would miss it. And my daughter and stepdaughter, in time, would miss it, too, I think.

All this, losses great and small, for lack of a few million dollars to build a better levee.

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