I Didn’t Say Death By Karin Burke

On a Monday, late in the year (I have to say this because I get confused, recently), I was supposed to be headed to New York City, yesterday, and a Zen retreat center early this morning. Instead, I’m at home nursing Ty, listening as cancer swells his abdomen and pain laces his bones. We wake and sleep all night long, The neighborhood went silent and empty over the holidays, and I cancelled my flight, and there didn’t seem to be any sound anywhere. All the people went away, to family and parties and airports. I stayed. Snow fell, eventually. Time stopped. We – the dog and I – fell out of the world.

Time moves, for us, differently. Time is measured by his breath, this waking and sleeping all night long. I measure time since he last peed or ate, the hundredth time I clean up after him, the thousandth time I lay my forehead on his heart.

When I wrote to my teacher to tell him I wasn’t coming, I used every word I could: cancer, diagnosis, uncertainty, responsibility. He answered simply, and intimately, as he does. Using the one word I didn’t.

I’m sorry your dog is dying, he said.

I didn’t say that, I realized. I didn’t say the one thing. I didn’t say: death.

Late in the cold, silent night I sat on the stoop and watched him limp around the yard. Put my hand on his big square head when he came back to me. Here is the gist of it: I don’t know how many more times he will come back to me, anymore. It’s a limited number, now, but I don’t know what the number is. While on this retreat, I was to take my Buddhist vows, to say out loud to my teacher I vow to follow this path, I vow to practice, I vow to practice until all sentient beings reach enlightenment. In the way of late, silent nights, it occurred to me that I am vowing: I am crossing over with this sentient being.

At four am, he fell asleep with his head on my lap. I sat still. I sat so still. I’ve often sat at four am, and this morning I remembered all of those times. I often joke that there was no transition period for me; I went from still being awake at four am as a drunk to waking at four am as a yogi with no interlude. The threshold of one day to another goes back a long time for me, touches a lot of people and places. This morning, my heart opened like an umbrella in my chest. I started to chant my chants, and then I sang old folk songs, and then I sang nothing at all. My throat stayed, wide open.

I wrote this much, this morning, and then stopped. I took Ty out to the woods and he refused. He looked at me as if apologizing. So I lifted him, carried him, back to the car and then the house. I took him out hours later and he left blood all over the snow. I want to write about blood on snow, but I can’t find any words for it other than blood, on snow. A few hours ago, with his head up against my chest and my lips on his head, Ty died.

There is no direct lineage to this tradition, yet there is said to be a bloodline. The bloodline is the vowing, by countless human beings over time, down through time, that brings the length and breadth and abstraction of this practice to the bruisy aliveness of your own heart. We vow to use this moment, this experience, to wake up, to not be asleep, to not break. In some ceremonies, you chant all the names from the Buddha to your own teacher. Joan Halifax has a ceremony in which you chant all the names of the women ancestors, down to your very own. Bloodline ties abstract ceremony and intention to your own veins, to the reality of hot blood on cold snow. To say, right now, I use this moment to wake up.

I lost a dear friend, the February before last. Now Ty. Both of those beings formed me, or informed me, or something. Without their being in the world, I don’t know who I am. Or, who I am isn’t real any longer. All the meanings and things that tethered me to a schedule, a role, a relatedness, are undone. They are words that don’t reflect reality, signposts that point to nothing, maps to things that no longer exist. I tried to study some of the work another mentor has sent me, but was absent minded and couldn’t concentrate. I tried to review what I’m going to teach and couldn’t understand my own handwriting. I can’t remember the train of thought my notes were intended to map out. I feet lost: disconnected from my teachers, disconnected from what I am doing or why, disconnected from the ones I love.

Of course, grief is not my story. Getting lost, having the things that make our life, change, is the only certainty there is. We do something for a while. We love people or places or landscapes for a while, we say oh this is how it is, or find a practice and say oh I’m going to do this everyday, this is the beginning of the rest of my life, but then it changes. The marriage you’re in today is not the marriage you started with. The body you have today is not the one you had a few months ago. Michael Stone once said he used to wonder how people go on living. We continually have to find new meanings for our lives.

Sometimes, the changes feel wonderful. You fall in love. Sometimes, its death.

As Leslie says, you’ve never been this old before. And you’ll never be this young again.

Bloodline is a question of how to enter where you are, now, amidst all these changes, as honestly and as bravely as you can. Because of this practice, over time, I have learned and can see how much depth there is. There is so much depth for me to move in my life, and so much depth for students to move into their own. Bloodline, a depth practice, is a way for us to not just ‘know’ things about yoga, or ourselves, but to really go for it, to go all the way. To keep giving ourselves to the practice, so that the practice can give you to yourself. It’s so important that you not waste your own time.

You are on this threshold, too. Of time. Certain things have come to you in the last year or months, and certain things have gone away. Where you stand is a question, how to really go for it, into it, to find the deep heart of the question that is, ultimately, you. There are parts of this heart that are mechanical, routine, and rote. And there are parts of it that are wild. Parts of it that are poetic, mysterious, unknowable as a dog’s deep eyes and unsayable as blood on snow. It’s this part we come closer to though the bloodline. The wild bit of the heart that both loves and mourns. The part that screams out for healing. The part that is murky and unborn. The parts you suspect but can’t quite explain. How can we let go, without ceremony? How can we make space for all that rushing newness in you, without marking space? How can you know what deeper means, if you don’t open to deepening?

This was originally published on Karin’s website.

Feature image by Pavel Voinov.

Screen Shot 2014-11-24 at 10.46.17Karin was an anthropologist, a barmaid, and a journalist before she bottomed out. Yoga saved her; she figures it might help others.  Karin’s teaching in jails, crisis centers, and church basements became a non-profit in 2007. In 2013, Return Yoga became an actual non-profit studio in St. Cloud, MN. More can be found at returnyoga.org

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