Category Archives: Aging

Sacred Arrow Haiku

byudo center Kyoto City Budo Center

Whenever I went into central Kyoto, the martial arts center was one of my favorite stops, especially the range for Kyudo–the Art of Archery.

Eugen Herrigel’s book Zen and the Art of Archery was my very first introduction to Zen Buddhism, and I can still feel the excitement I felt as I read the book in the Spring of 1968.  I don’t think it is accurate to call the Zen arts in general, and the Art of Archery in particular, “religious.” The use of the word “religious” is problematic when applied to Japanese culture.  For most Westerners, the word carries the connotation of rigid dogma, exclusivity, and strict moralism.  None of these characteristics applies consistently to Buddhism or Shinto, which from the Nara period (8th century CE) have been marked with a syncretism only occasionally marred by feuds or Nationalistic cooptation. During the six years I taught in a Japanese University, I had a fascinating time explaining why Westerners took Religion so seriously.

Still, as with all things Zen, there is a marvelous ritual and spirituality in the Art of Archery. Practitioners wear special dress and approach the line with reverential short steps. They first kneel sideways to the targets, and, as in the tea ceremony, every movement is prescribed, from the stringing of the bow, to taking aim, to releasing the arrow:

kyudo kneeling

Here is another picture from the Kyoto Center:

girls kyudo

On every visit, I was transported by the grace and beauty of the Art.  It was truly a marvelous dance.  I was also amazed at the distance to the small target:

target

One day as I was enjoying the artistry of the archers, I noticed a man who seemed about my age (at the time, 72), moving with exceptional grace and apparent lack of control, who hit on or near the bullseye every time.  It was a privilege to watch him, and I felt his centered concentration seep into my own mind and heart.  When he finished, I approached him to offer my gratitude and appreciation.  He was most gracious in return–but then he said “Nansai desuka? (how old are you?)” Nanajunisai desu (72) I answered.”  He smiled.  “Kodomo (a child!)” he said. Pointing to his nose, he said “Kyujunisai desu (I am 92).”   I was swept away by the wonder of artistic mastery and the relativity of age:

grace smoothly flowing

his back straight as an arrow

old man disappears

linked to carpe diem haiku kai

On Turning 76

cake

Yup, today I am trailing 3/4 of a century behind me.  The word “surreal” comes to mind.

I have always thought September 20 was a cool day for a birthday, so close to the equinox. And now on this autumn day, I can no longer avoid the realization that I am entering the autumn of my life.  But as in the Nature around me, my life feels filled with bright colors and fresh, crisp air.  My wife, Carolyn, and I are blessed with perfect health (we walk 2-5 miles every day, and enjoy a neat yoga routine), a beautiful family, wonderful friends, and lots of shining dreams.

Although I retired from full time teaching just two years ago, at age 74, life continues to be vibrant.  In just a few weeks, Carolyn and I will be returning to Spain to continue our love affair with the country and her language.  I so enjoy enrolling in language schools in the countries we visit. It is a joy being a student again, reveling in the thrill of learning and becoming a part of a community.  Rather than simply being a tourist gliding over the surface of things,  this feels more fulfilling for me and more respectful of the culture,

I taught my first university class in 1962 at the University of Detroit, and so completed 50 years as a professor.  Apart from  a few sabbaticals, that means close to 100 semesters of intense and lovingly intimate dialogue with thousands of wondrous students, who taught me far more than they will ever know.   To any who might read this,  “thank you” doesn’t begin to express my gratitude.

At the beginning of the Republic, Socrates says to an old man, “And now that you have reached an age when your foot, as the poets say, is on the threshold, I should like to hear what report you can give and whether you find it a painful time of life.”  This “foot on the threshold” bit is a little creepy.  With luck, I have another 10 vigorous years.  Death, however, is not the most impactful realization.  Finitude is; and that makes every day precious.  I find myself echoing the old man in the Milagro Beanfield War: “Thank you, God, for giving me another day.”   I recommend that little prayer to everyone.

As far as pain goes, I think the most difficult part of aging is the loss of the friends and family who die before us.  The absence of each treasured loved one alters the fabric of life in significant ways, leaving holes that never fill, but also bright threads that weave patterns of joy and love that only deepen with time.  We have all come through dark valleys and over shining hills to arrive at today, and with a modicum of attention, learning and growth do happen.  I can honestly say that life just gets better and better with each passing year.  Maybe there will come a point of diminishing returns, but somehow I don’t think so.  Life continues to be “wild and precious” as Mary Oliver has it, and so I raise my morning glass of orange juice, and say “l’chaim.”

From time to time, I still stumble into fear and forgetfulness, but I find hope and reassurance in this lovely poem by Hayden Carruth:

So often has it been displayed to us, the hourglass
with its grains of sand drifting down,
not as an object in our world
but as a sign, a symbol, our lives
drifting down grain by grain,
sifting away – I’m sure everyone must
see this emblem somewhere in the mind.
Yet not only our lives drift down. The stuff
of ego with which we began, the mass
in the upper chamber, filters away
as love accumulates below. Now
I am almost entirely love.

 

 

 

The Beauty of Aging

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Some Mature Cherry Trees in Kyoto–and a couple of maturing folks in front of them.

May you walk in Beauty
An Ancient Navajo Prayer

May the Beauty we love be what we do
Jellaudin Rumi (1250)

To speak of aging and beauty in the same breath might seem to be hopelessly naive. The physical and mental debility of aging leads only to the grave, and it seems a vicious joke that all our dreams and hopes and efforts should end in the disgraceful and ignoble mire of old age. Moreover, in western countries, the cult of youth marginalizes those of us with white hair. We are certainly not a sought after demographic. A recent advertisement for a job at the United Nations warned that those over 58 need not apply. Many universities are looking for excellent young teachers because the image of the old dried out professor reading from his yellow notes is deeply engrained in the collective imagination. Many of us go through our days experiencing new and mystifying pains, being shocked by the person we see in the mirrors and windows we happen to pass, and either being ignored or patronized by the vigorous young people around us who are going about the important business of life. On this far side of Middle Age, I find Robert Frost’s couplet particularly apt: “Oh Lord, if You forgive my little jokes on Thee, I will forgive Thy great big one on me.” We put on a brave face, but in our heart of hearts, we know the terrifying truth that the game is up.

Or is it?

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