September 6th, 1984 is etched deep in my cells. I remember exactly where I was sitting (in my kitchen), and what I was reading (The Vegetarian Epicure) when the phone rang. Back then there was no caller ID, but when I picked up the phone, the brief silence at the other end of the line told me something was wrong. When my mother spoke, her lilting voice seemed weak and vacant. “I have some very bad news,” she said.
Twenty-eight years ago today my dad answered a business call at home, as he did most days. In the middle of the call he interrupted the caller to tell her he didn’t feel right. He handed the phone to my mother. Twenty seconds later she hung up the phone. She then went to my dad who had lain down on the floor. He wasn’t breathing and his heart had stopped. This man, a whirlwind of energy, cat lover, gymnast who exercised almost every day of his life, built the house I grew up in, built a swimming pool for us—by himself, instilled in all his daughters a passion for music, and taught us all how to tune up our cars and change our oil because he believed girls were every bit as capable as boys, was gone. Just like that.
This morning as I walked to my yoga class, I reflected on my dad, how he was an exercise freak in the days when very few people thought exercise was important. I felt grateful for his insistence that my sisters and I walk the mile to school rather than taking the bus, and I felt grateful that because of this, I have always made a point to live in walkable neighborhoods. I never drive somewhere when I can walk. There are few activities that ground me and provide the simple pleasure that walking does.
Not every time, but many times when I am sitting in the middle of the Salt Lake Symphony or in my sextet Red Rock Rondo, being carried away by the sonic beauty of some musical masterpiece, I am grateful to both my parents for making me practice back in the day. It was a struggle sometimes. But without their passion and perseverance I would not have the joy of music in my life to the extent that I do.
About a year after my dad passed, my mother, sisters and I were hanging out together at my sister’s house. Ronald Reagan was president, and all our hackles were up about his trickle-down policies. I flashed on my last conversation with my dad, a mutual rant about Reagan, and my dad’s disappointment that his reelection was in the bag. I thought, “Look at us all, ranting about politics. My dad isn’t gone. He’s right here, in all of us.” I was grateful that he had inspired us all to stay informed, to question and to read between the lines.
Our Fortunate Lives
While President Obama was president, he made his famous speech that was quickly distilled into “You didn’t build that.” Several of my conservative friends interpreted this as a devaluing of their efforts and accomplishments. I read it instead as an acknowledgment that whatever we have accomplished in this world has been as a result of not only our own efforts and choices, but the support we’ve had from countless people over our lifetimes. I found Obama’s speech to reflect a larger view of the world. It made me grateful.
Just in my own small life, my parents provided examples not only for my musical life but my healthy physical body, my commitment to authenticity, even my stubborn commitment to punctuality and keeping my promises. The public school system taught me the basics of English without which I could not have written two books. My mentors, Pujari and Abhilasha of The Last Resort Retreat Center, provided space and support for me to go deep in meditation, which has changed my life in a million different ways. My other yoga teachers, especially Donna Farhi and Judith Hanson Lasater, have given me a solid foundation that acts as a springboard for my own yogic inquiry. If I think about anything—anything—I’ve ever accomplished I am infinitely grateful for the countless events and people that came together to make it possible. And gratitude feels a whole lot better to me than feeling like it’s me against the world and everyone in it.
The Definition of Heaven
A traditional Chinese parable tells the story of an old man who knows he will die soon. Worried about the afterlife he seeks out the village wise man and asks him to tell him about heaven and hell. The wise man says, “Come, follow me.”
They walk down a long path until they come to a large dwelling. When they walk inside they find a huge dining room. In the center of the room is a long wooden table bearing a sumptuous buffet of unimaginable proportions—all the culinary delights anyone could possibly desire. Many frustrated and unhappy people ring the table. They have been given chopsticks that are twelve feet long and therefore are unable to feed themselves. The food remains untouched, the people hungry and dissatisfied. The old man says, “This must be hell.”
They walk down the path a bit further until they reach a similar large house. Inside they find the same beautiful buffet, same ring of people, same twelve-foot chopsticks. However, in this scenario there is much laughter and conviviality. The people here have learned to use the impossible utensils. “In heaven,” says the teacher, “people feed each other.”
The potential for Heaven exists on earth, right here, right now. We can isolate ourselves, jealous of our time, effort and energy, or we can acknowledge the infinite amount of love and support we’ve received in our lives and share that bounty with the rest of the world.
I’m grateful for all the people and events—and yes, my own efforts and choices—that have brought me to this moment. And in this moment, on this day, I am especially grateful to my dad in all his complex, difficult, fun-loving, opinionated, generous, stubborn, humorous, volatile, creative, passionate intensity. While I wish he was still around, I’m even grateful for his shocking, sudden demise because it brought home the fleeting nature of life, and the urgency of appreciating this moment.