The Art of Letting Go
On Writing, Dying, and MomBy Ruth Ozeki | May 07, 2006
In topics: Death and Dying, Sangha Voices, Writing / Art / Creativity
"The Art of Losing" > "The Art of Letting Go"
When I was asked to provide a title for this talk, I proposed calling it "The Art of Losing: On Writing, Dying, and Mom," which refers to a line from a beautiful poem by Elizabeth Bishop, called "One Art."
I have to admit, I was kind of proud of my title. I thought it was . . . you know . . . subtle and deep and kind of enigmatic. Not too flashy.
And "One Art" is a favorite poem of mine, so I thought I could start the talk by reading that poem to you, because, as a writer who is also Buddhist, and a woman, and a student of Norman Fischer's, I think it's nice to start a talk by paying tribute to my women ancestors.
But, then the Zen Hospice folks came back to me with a counter-proposal for the title: "The Art of Letting Go."
Losing. Letting Go. It's interesting right? The difference in nuance? Actually, I thought it was kind of funny. "Losing" does sound awfully negative, and even as Buddhists, we don't want to be losers, right?
And certainly no one here should feel like a loser tonight. On the contrary. This dinner is a tribute, a way of saying thank you to all the people who, through their generous gifts, make the work of the Zen Hospice Project possible. This kind of giving is certainly not about losing.
It is, on the other hand, all about (amply, generously, and joyously) letting go.
So the Hospice folks knew better, and I agreed. But, I still think it would be nice to share Elizabeth Bishop's poem with you, because when I came across it again in a new volume of her poetry that's been posthumously published, I was again so moved by it, and it also directly pertains to the topic at hand.
So here it is. . . One Art, by Elizabeth Bishop.
ONE ART The art of losing isn't hard to master; so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster. Lose something every day. Accept the fluster of lost door keys, the hour badly spent. The art of losing isn't hard to master. Then practice losing farther, losing faster; places, and names, and where it was you meant to travel. None of these will bring disaster. I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or next-to-last, of three loved houses went. The art of losing isn't hard to master. I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster, some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent. I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster. --Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident the art of losing's not too hard to master though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
Norman Fischer, who, like Elizabeth Bishop, is a poet, is also fond of noting that the world is a disaster. Of course, he tempers this by pointing out that the world is simultaneously magnificent.
I bring up Norman because he's the one responsible for me being here today. I've been studying with him for a while now, and since this is the Zen Hospice Project dinner, I wanted to tell you about my introduction to Zen, since it ties into writing, dying and to my Mom, and also because it's kind of funny.
My very first memory as a little human being was of my grandparents sitting zazen. I was very little, maybe three years old, and my Japanese grandparents—my Mom's parents—had come to visit us in New Haven, Connecticut, which is where I grew up. We lived in a small house with no spare bedroom, so my grandparents were going to sleep in my parents' room. I remember being very excited about these two strange people in the house. I remember their clothes smelled funny—not bad, probably like incense, now that I think of it.
That first morning was filled with suspense. My mother was in the kitchen, cooking, and she sent me to call them for breakfast. I remember approaching the closed bedroom door with enormous trepidation. Perhaps I knocked, or maybe I didn't. It was perfectly silent on the other side. I imagine I must have felt a grave sense of responsibility—I had been given a duty to discharge, and Asian people, even very little ones, are nothing if not dutiful. So perhaps it was this sense of duty that compelled me to turn the knob, and open the door.
Nothing in my three years of living prepared me for what I saw. My grandmother and grandfather were sitting on the floor, on either side of the bed, with their legs crossed, and their eyes half-closed, rocking gently back and forth.
Now, you have to remember, this was New Haven, Connecticut, in the 1950's. People didn't sit on the floor, cross-legged, with their eyes half-closed, rocking back and forth. This was not San Francisco.
Seated on the floor like that, they were my height, exactly. We were at eye level, only their eyes were half shut. Mine, on the other hand, were wide open. I stood there for a moment, then backed out of the room, and ran full tilt back into the kitchen, where I told my mother what I had seen.
And here's the funny part. My mom must have tried to explain to me that they were meditating, which of course meant nothing to a three-year-old. So when I didn't understand, she went and got my Daruma doll. Do you know the Japanese Daruma dolls? Daruma is, of course, Bodhidharma, the monk who founded the Zen lineage in China. The Japanese Daruma dolls are these round dolls with no legs or arms, and big blank white circles where their eyes should be. I remember my doll looked kind of like a red snowman, and it rocked, and the idea was that even if you tried to push it over, it would always regain its balance.
So my mom set my Daruma rocking back and forth, and she explained that this was meditating. Then she said that Daruma was a really, really good meditator. In fact, he was such a good meditator, and he had meditated for so long, that his arms and legs had fallen off. And the reason he had no eyes was that he had gotten sleepy while he was meditating and so he had cut off his eyelids.
So, this was my introduction to Zen, and thanks to Mom, I developed an association in my mind between Zen meditation and blindness and grave bodily disfigurement. For the rest of my grandparents' visit, I kept fearing I'd walk in and find them, sightless and limbless, rocking gently back and forth.
Whatever the trauma Mom's explanation might have caused, in time I got over it. Much later on, when I started sitting zazen myself, Mom was mystified. She called the posture "squatting on the floor." She never understood why I would choose to squat on the floor and stare at a wall for days on end, when I could be reading a good book. She saw me as the Buddhist equivalent of a Born-Again Christian.
Like many second generation Japanese kids growing up in America, my mom had been sent to Christian church, while her parents practiced Buddhism. When WWII broke out, she was separated from her parents, and became further estranged from her Japanese roots. After the war, my grandparents moved back to Japan, and my mom stayed in Connecticut, so by then, she saw her parents very rarely. And when her mother died, at the age of 93, in an old age home outside of Tokyo, Mom hadn't seen her for many years.
I remember when she called me in New York to give me the news of my grandmother's death, she told me that she didn't want to go to Japan to the funeral. It would be a Buddhist ceremony, and she had a bad leg—it must have been arthritis or something—and she didn't want to squat on the floor during the service. She was afraid that she would have to use a chair, and that she would embarrass the family. So she asked me if I would go, instead.
So I went to Tokyo, to my aunt Noriko's house. My grandmother had already been cremated by the time I got there, but I was in time for her funeral ceremony at the family temple, and her interment in the family cemetery plot. But before we left for the temple, my aunt took me into the parlor where she was keeping my grandmother's remains. She showed me the urn, which I dutifully admired, then she went to the kitchen and brought back a small Tupperware container and a pair of those disposable wooden chopsticks that you get with take-out sushi. She lined the container with one of my grandmother's fancy handkerchiefs, and she opened the urn and started taking out bits of my grandmother's bones and placing them in the Tupperware.
As you can imagine, I was... surprised...for several reasons: First to see that the cremains were bones and not ashes. Second to see my aunt packing them in Tupperware. And third, to hear her naming each bone as she did so. "This is a piece of your grandmother's skull. This is a bit of her rib." When she had transferred three bones, she closed up the container and handed it to me, telling me that I should take it home and give it to my mother.
I didn't realize it at the time, but this is a custom, called honewake, or dividing the bones, and it's often practiced when a person's family has spread out and lives in different places, and it's also often practiced when a women dies, so that her parents' family can have some of her remains, as a consolation, while the majority are buried with her husband.
Anyway, to make a long story short, I came back from Japan with the bones and a large box of my grandmother's belongings, but with one thing and another, I just didn't get around to bringing them home to my mom. She and I had grown apart over the years, too. I was busy with my career, and talking about death is never easy. She knew I had the bones, and I kept hoping she'd ask me about them, but she never did. And I didn't really want to bring up the subject. So I just kept moving them around with me—I think I moved three or four times, and in every new apartment, I would put the bones on a shelf in the closet and close the door. I mean, talk about a skeleton in the closet! This went on for about five years.
At the time, I was working in the television business, and was trying to get away from commercial production. I was interested in exploring my Japanese heritage, and I had started writing down little snippits of family history, stuff that I'd heard from my mom and from my grandmother. I started making lists of questions I had, and I realized how much I didn't know. I felt a deep sense of loss and regret that I could no longer ask my grandparents because they were dead. But at the same time, I felt an increasing compulsion to make something out of what remained.
I had my grandfather's photographs, and I had my grandmother's bones. I had myself, and I had my mom. I had a duty to discharge, given to me by my aunt—and as we've established, I am nothing if not dutiful. But more powerful than that, I had a mandate from the dead.
This might seem strange, but that's what it felt like. Like I had a mandate from my dead Japanese grandparents to engage with the world creatively. My grandfather had been a haiku poet and a photographer. He was the first official park photographer for Volcano National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii, and I grew up surrounded by his images and his words: His black and white photographs of the Hawaiian landscape, painstakingly hand-colored by my grandmother; his book of his poems; and their beautifully calligraphed paintings and scrolls.
When I was little and just starting to write poems and take pictures myself, my mother used to say that I was just like my grandfather. She use to shake her head, ruefully, and marvel at how her father's talent and love of the arts had skipped a generation, bypassing her, only to end up in me. It made me feel very proud whenever she said this, and she said it often, as though to make sure I would remember. I had only met my grandfather once, when I was three, but somehow I felt a transmission had occurred. And my grandmother, by bequeathing me her bones, had completed the process. Those bones were the seal to the mandate.
What came out of all this was the film that Anne mentioned, called "Halving the Bones." It was the first creative effort I put out into the world, and it tells the story of my grandparents, and of my grandmother's death, and of delivering her bones to my mother. I'd like to show you a short clip from the film now, so you can meet my Mom.
Halving the Bones (transcript) MOM: The famous bones that we've been talking about. . . Ruth takes a bundle wrapped in plastic from the orange
backpack. She unwraps it and hands it to Mom. RUTH These are the bones. Well, these, these are only a few of them. They just cremate it to the bone. MOM: Isn't that a beautiful container! RUTH: Yeah, this is the cloth that's, um, that they use for death... MOM: And then where'd you get this container? RUTH: It's a tea can. . . MOM: It's beautiful! RUTH It's just a regular tea can. You know when Noriko gave me the bones, she gave it to me actually in a Tupperware container, a little plastic Tupperware container that... MOM: (laughing) No...! RUTH: So, as soon as I could I found something a little more dignified. But even so, I mean, a tea can is still, you know.... MOM: No, but it's lovely, this container, it's a very nice....and it's so appropriate, I mean you know...You mean all of this is her bone? RUTH: There's just, look there's three pieces, there's three little pieces. They're very beautiful. Mom opens the can and looks inside. MOM: Oh, my... aren't they beau....they're colored! They're colored! Oh I hate to touch them because....Isn't that pretty! It's as if they were painted. Oh....isn't that interesting. My mother's bones....Huh. RUTH: Noriko was able to identify, she was able to identify which bone came from what part of the body. So she said, "this is part of a skull, this is part of a spine...." I can't remember, but.... MOM: But, but was there part of her brains in here, too? Mom peers into can. RUTH: I think there was definitely part of the skull, but I'm not sure. I'm not sure which part it is. Mom takes out a bone with a hole in it and turns it
around. She peeks through the hole. MOM: ...Isn't that interesting. And it's such odd shapes.... My gosh.... She puts the cover back on the can and pats it. Then
addresses her mother, softly. Well, we're talking about you. We're talking about you..... MOM: (patting the tea can) This is nice! This is nice. I like this. I like this. RUTH So the thing is, Mom, when.... I have this memory, that Grandma wanted her bones brought back to Hawaii. She said ... I have this memory she didn't want to, um, be buried in Japan. She wanted her bones brought back to Hawaii and thrown into the ocean. And, so what I was thinking was that you and I could go back to Hawaii, and do this..... (Long pause. . . )
Fade up on Ruth's P.O.V., driving away from. Mom is
standing in front of doorway of her house, waving her arms
goodbye, and getting smaller and smaller. RUTH (VO): Well, as it turned out, Mom really didn't want to go anywhere. She'd found her place in the world... in Connecticut... and nothing was going to convince her to leave. Mom lives entirely in the present, and I have to respect that. Still, I was satisfied with what she and I had done. Unpacking Grandma's things and taking care of her remains gave us something we could do together. It made our relationship important again, and we found a closeness that we never lost. Mom lives in the present, but I don't. I spend a lot of time poking around in the past or imagining the future. Before I left that day, Mom gave me some very specific instructions regarding the bones. This is what she said.
And I will tell you what she said in a moment, but first I want to talk a bit about what happened next.
Writing, Dying, and Mom
Making the film helped me reconnect with my mother. It gave me the excuse to spend time with her, and get to know her, and learn to talk to her again. It was like our relationship was somehow re-knit from the bones of my grandmother. Ultimately, when my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 1997, and then my father died in 1998, I decided to take care of her myself. I think that decision was possible because of the closeness we'd found, and also because, during the making of the film, I'd spent so much time thinking about the ways that we lose people. I didn't want to be half a world away from her when she died.
There is a powerful link between creativity and death. I suspect that by engaging creatively with the world, by telling stories through novels and poems and films, I am also engaging with death—I imagine it, I try it on, I struggle to make sense of it or to hold it at bay. When I sat down to write this talk, I realized that, in the end, all my work has been in some way about dying. And I know I'm not alone. Writing is a kind of imaginative journey into the land of the dead. We learn things there, and then return what we learn to the living. It is a journey undertaken by anyone who has ever told stories, from Homer, to Dante, to Elizabeth Bishop. To write is to practice of the art of losing.
It wasn't always easy to care for my Mom. It became clear pretty quickly that she couldn't live on her own, but my mother, like most mothers, had a serious stubborn streak. You saw how adamant she was about not leaving Connecticut? I was prepared for the worst, but I'm happy to say that, although I never could get her to agree to go back to Hawaii with me, in 1999, she packed a tiny suitcase with a toothbrush, two bathing suits and a pair of pajamas, and declared herself ready to come home with me and my husband to British Columbia. She lived there with us there, in a little house next to ours, pretty much until she died, just over a year ago.
And I'd like to share just a little of what I wrote during that time, which was part of my practice of losing. This is from my weblog.
Sunday, August 17, 2003
So, my mother said to me, the other day, "When I die, are
you going to start renting out this house to other people?"
She is staying in a little house down the driveway from
"I haven't thought about it," I replied, hedging. Obviously
I don't like it when she talks about dying.
"Well, you should take the washer dryer up to your house
before you rent it to anyone."
"The washing machine. . . ?"
"Yes," she said. "I don't know why you put it in this house.
You have to come all the way down here every time you want
to do your laundry."
"We put it down here so we could all share...." We put it
down here so we'd have another excuse to hang out with you.
We put it down here because we are afraid you'll become
bedridden and incontinent.
"Well," she said, "that's very nice of you, but after I die
I don't want to have to worry about you not having a washer
"Mom," I told her. "Please." She's had Alzheimer's since the
mid 1990's, she's just been diagnosed with what looks like
jaw cancer, and she's eighty-nine years old. She has enough
on her mind without worrying about our laundry.
"So you'll take it back up to your house?"
"Mom, when you die, I'm burying the washer dryer with you."
"Don't be silly."
"I don't want to have to worry about your dirty clothes when
you're in heaven." (I don't really believe in heaven, and
neither does she, but I know she will humor me.)
"Clothes don't get dirty in heaven," she said, staring at a
tall Douglas fir outside the window. "Clothes are always
clean in heaven."
"Yes. They have angels there who do all the laundry. Now,
isn't that a lovely tree? What kind of tree is that?"
May 25, 2004 A lot has happened. My mother turned 90 last month and we had a little birthday party for her. "How old am I?" she asked me. "You're ninety, mom." Her eyes widened. "I am! That's unbelievable! How can I be ninety? I don't feel ninety." "How old do you feel?" "Forty." She was perfectly serious. I laughed. "You can't be forty. Even I'm older than forty." "You are?" she exclaimed. "That's terrible!"
She shook her head. "You know, I must be getting old. I just
can't remember anything, anymore." She looked up at me and
blinked. "How old am I?"
Later on, I asked her, "How does it feel?"
"When you can't remember things. Does it frighten you? Do
you feel sad?"
"Well, not really. I have this condition, you see. It's
called osteo... "
"You mean Alzheimer's?" I said, helping her out.
She looked astonished. "Yes! How on earth did you know
"Just a guess..."
"I can never remember the name," she explained.
"Of course not."
"It affects my memory..."
"...And that's why you can't remember."
She frowned and shook her head. "Remember what?"
"There's not a single thing I can do about it," she told me,
when I reminded her. "If there was something I could do and
I wasn't doing it, then I could feel sad or depressed. But
as it is...." She shrugged.
"So you're okay with it?"
She looked at me, patiently. "I don't have much choice," she
explained, "so I may as well be happy."
December 8, 2005 Dear Norman, Thank you for asking me to write this. As you know, my mom died one month ago, today. She had three terminal conditions: Alzheimer's, cancer of the jaw, and ninety years of living. Her death should have come as no surprise, but of course when she died in my arms, I was astonished. How can this life, which has persisted here on this earth for over ninety years, be over? Just like that? This strange new state of momlessness is inconceivable to me. It is new and foreign, a condition I've never experienced in my own forty-eight years of living. I've been taking care of my mom for the last ten years, so my grieving is minute and quotidian. When I go to the grocery store, I find myself searching for things that are soft and sweet (she loved chocolate and she had no teeth), or beautiful bright things (she loved flowers, but her sight was failing). Then I remember that she isn't here anymore, and I'll never see her face light up when I come into her room, or hear her exclaim over the color of a leaf or a petal or the sky. For the first couple of weeks, I just stood in the ice cream aisle, stunned and weeping. When I think about her death from her perspective, mostly I just feel relief. She was beginning to suffer a lot of pain and confusion, and I believe she was ready to go. But when I think about it from my point of view, it breaks my heart. Maybe that's selfish. I don't know. All I know is that I miss her like crazy. I miss her thin little fingers. I miss holding her hand. I miss twirling her wedding ring around so the tiny chip of a diamond sits back on top. I've tried so hard to be strong for her. When she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's ten years ago, our roles began to switch. I took over caring for her, and slowly she became dependent on me. In the end, I was feeding her and changing her, and she was calling me mom. Alzheimer's is an achingly long way to say goodbye, but I had to be strong, I thought. It would only confuse and upset her to see me cry. Then a few months ago, I had to take a trip and leave her for a couple of weeks. I went to tell her, knowing that she might die while I was gone, and as I sat on the bed next to her, the tears just came and there was no stopping them. I tried not to let her see, but of course she noticed. She's my mom, after all--it's her job to notice these things. She put her arm around me, put her head on my shoulder, and although she'd pretty much stopped using language by then, she made these sweet, singing, mom-like noises meant to comfort me. And it worked, and I felt better, and when I left, we were both laughing. So that was good. My grieving gave her something that she could do well, something she could succeed at, and that made her happy. It let her be the strong one for a change. They say every death is different, and I think every occasion of grief is different, too. When my dad died, I was angry because he was angry and despairing. He did not want to die. He wasn't ready; and I was in charge of his health care; and neither of us could do a damn thing to prevent or forestall this utterly unthinkable and unacceptably terminal outcome. I was mad at him for his lack of readiness, and I was furious at myself for my impotence and lack of compassion. After he died, I couldn't think of him without a lot of pain and anger and confusion and despair and sense of having failed him. I couldn't look at his picture without feeling my insides twist. I wanted to look away. And I did. I remember I drank a lot, too, in order to get through it. I took his death very personally. It was different with my mom. We'd had lots of time together, and we were both as ready as we could ever be. And I wasn't drinking. I quit two months before she died. I'd done the drunken death-and-grieving thing once, and it was lousy. I didn't want to do it again. I wanted to keep my wits about me. I didn't want to run away. The last thing I promised my dad was to take care of my mom. He knew she had Alzheimer's, and he was tortured at having to leave her behind. So for ten years now, I've been fulfilling my promise to him. And this has been good, too.
His request gave me something that I could do well,
something I could succeed at, and this has made me happy.
So I'm grateful to my parents for dying in my presence, and
for teaching me their two different ways of how it can be
done. It is hard work, dying, but after watching my mom and
dad, I realize that we're built to do it.
Grieving is hard work, too, but again, I guess we're built
to do it. We come equipped with hearts to break, and eyes to
cry with. We have brains to hold the memories and stories,
and voices to tell them with. We have the capacity to love
Now, a month after my mom's death, I'm not crying in the
grocery store so often anymore. Instead, when I think of my
mom, I buy a sweet and offer it to her, and then I eat it
(she hated wasting perfectly good food). I bring home
flowers and admire them through her eyes. I take walks for
her by the ocean and look at the sky.
So that's a little bit of what it's been like. Thanks again,
Norman, for asking me to write this. It helps to have a
place to put the feelings.
Negotiating with the Dead
I said earlier that through writing we try to make sense of suffering and death, but I think actually the impulse is even more fundamental than that.
Writing derives from the foreknowledge, and the fear, of death. If we were not able to foresee our own termination, then why would we bother to write things down? If we could not envision the world without us, then why would we feel the need to leave bits of ourselves behind? And if we were not compelled to hold on to our dead, then why would we mourn, or grieve, or commemorate them? Why would we feel the need to speak to them, or for them? Why would we need history at all?
You could argue, and others have, that all stories are about dying. The act of telling a story is an act of negotiating with the dead, to use Margaret Atwood's phrase.
Storytelling is about the ticking of the clock. It's about "Once upon a time." Stories have unique qualities that set them apart from arts like music, performance, or pictorial representation. Unlike painting, stories are time-based—they unfold through time. Unlike performance, they persist—they stick around. And unlike music, they are literal.
Stories literally re-enact time passing. They are born, they live, and then they die, and every time you participate in the act of writing or reading a story, you are performing a cycle of living and dying. Pretending. Practicing. Rehearsing, if you will.
Stories are messages from the nether land, the land of the dead, and writers are the future dead, calling back to the living.
In the publishing business, there's a saying, "The only good author is a dead author." For those of us still living, this sentiment is a bit discouraging, but at least we can take consolation in knowing that the best may still lie ahead. And to be fair, you can see their point. Authors are, hands down, the most problematic link in the production chain. They are moody, and unreliable. They can be preening prima donnas, or stubbornly reclusive, puffed up or crippled by doubt. Often they have bad habits, like drinking or philandering or bad hygiene. Generally, these are not people you want in key roles in your production team.
But really, when you think about it, the saying is quite true. The majority of the books and stories that we read—the good ones, anyway, the ones that linger—are written by dead authors. Language, itself, the very medium of story, is an inheritance bequeathed to us by the dead, and when we practice the art of telling stories, we do so in the tongues of the dead, calling them back to life.
Art of Letting Go
Which brings us back to Elizabeth Bishop's poem, One Art. The art that Bishop refers to in the poem is the art of losing, which, like any art, must be practiced, and in fact will be practiced whether we like it or not.
But in the final stanza, she intrudes upon her very last line with a private, parenthetical command, which suggests there is yet another art that is equally imperative:
. . . It's evident the art of losing's not too hard to master though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
"Write it!" she commands herself. Write it! Write your loss, because for a poet, this disaster that we call life—and it truly is a disaster, when you think about it—can only be transformed into magnificence through the practice of this One Art. It is through poetry that Bishop practices the art of losing, and transforms each loss into a poem, which is a kind of liberation, a letting go. And through the poem she leaves behind, post-mortem, she shows us all how to make the journey and to effect this transformation, too.
I spent ten years losing my Mom, little by little, to Alzheimer's. But during those years, I wrote two books, and countless letters and weblog postings and stories and journal entries and poems. This past week, while I was writing this talk, I realized that by following a dead poet's injunction, by practicing this art of losing, I had been turning loss into letting go.
Now this, of course, is precisely what the Zen Hospice folks, in their wisdom, had known from the start.
It seems to me that Zen Hospice Project is really about living and teaching this very practice: Of turning losing into letting go, loss into liberation, and disaster back into the magnificence of life.
So I'd like to thank the folks at ZHP for teaching this practice—and also for helping me find the title of my talk today.
And on behalf of the ZHP, I would like to thank all of you for your generosity—for generously and joyously letting go—and thereby helping so many people to do the same.
If Mom were here, she'd thank you, too.
—Oh, and I promised to tell you what Mom said. She told me to take her bones, and my grandmother's bones, back to Hawaii and throw them both in the ocean. I confess, I haven't done that yet. I'm not quite ready to let go.
© 2006, Ruth Ozeki
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