In learning to draw, my awareness of the importance of shadows grows. Shadows help us see what it is we’re looking at. They function to distinguish shape and to define forms. They help us understand the textural differences between one element and another, and to discern the nature of things.
In everyday life, we generally prefer things to go smoothly. Shadows hanging over our heads are not generally appreciated. Shadows between the sweet things in life that bring us joy are seen in clearer light when seen in contrast with the challenging, elements in our circumstances.
Currently, the media surrounds us with messages that feed the brain’s propensity for negativity, encouraging heightened alertness, and for some, a kind of panic. At markets where I live there is a run on food staples such as beans, bread, and rice, as well as hand sanitizer, bleach and hydrogen peroxide as people prepare for possible quarantines, lockdowns, and the potential need to remain socially isolated in the effort to squash the spread of COVID-19. This fear is compounded by anxieties in other areas too: rising rents and housing costs in general, the stock market’s decline, worries over climate change, health care costs, and who will be the next US president, not to mention ongoing violence against human rights, people pushed out of their homes and countries because of internal terrorism or wars, and though not always publicized, the numbers of those dying each day from hunger, the isolation of the aged. So much disquietude. So many shadows.
How do we live in the face of such anxiety and relentless suffering? The challenges societies face today are complex and don’t have simple solutions. Inequities and systemic injustices previously accepted or hidden beneath the surface are now visible, the contrasts between worlds drawn more clearly. Is balance impossible in the face of crisis? Situations may feel unbearable, nevertheless amidst it all, the world continues on, changing, though it’s not necessarily clear what that change might look like.
Living, like drawing, is a creative act. We are each a part of determining what form that change might take by what we highlight, the lines and textures we draw, and the contrast we choose to emphasize in order to create the forms and overall tone or feeling of the world we’re making.
In Rabindranath Tagore’s book, The Gardener, he writes,
“I was walking by the road, I do not know why, when the noonday was past and bamboo branches rustled in the wind.
The prone shadows with their out-stretched arms clung to the feet of the hurrying light. The koels were weary of their songs?
I was walking by the road, I do not know why.”
Like the speaker in Tagore’s poem, we’re on a journey. We don’t always know where we’re going or may not understand why we’re where we are, but something beckons to us. We hear rustlings in the wind, shadows of those chasing after what might be answers. Tagore mentions koels. If you’ve ever listened to a koel’s vocalizations, the bird sounds as if it is saying its own name, yet Tagore mentions the possibility of a change in what they say, suggesting, too, they’ve grown tired of speaking and are saying nothing at all. Tagore observes his situation and senses something is altering in the pattern and nature of things.
We, too, like the speaker in Tagore’s poem, are sometimes pulled toward certain places, people or experiences without necessarily knowing why or having a rational explanation for why. That’s the wonderful or perhaps terrifying thing, depending on your perspective. Life can never quite be named, though one thing is growing clearer to me as a result of the recent fears over the covid-19 pandemic: we’re all in this together. The natural environment, physical environment, animal and human environment—we all affect each other. We are connected, are a community, regardless of our awareness or level of functioning or disfunction. True in art as in life, shadows can help us understand the source of light and deepen our humanity. Heartening examples of this are emerging from Italy where, as CNBC reports that though Italy is a country hard hit by COVID-19 with 17,660 confirmed cases and 1,266 deaths so far, “Italians are singing songs from their windows to boost morale during the coronavirus lockdown.” Schools, museums, cinemas are closed, soccer matches canceled. Restaurants are ordered to close, the economy is struggling, but people have found a way to express life’s joy—singing and dancing playing music together from their balconies—separated, but still seeing themselves in a shared struggle.
We fear losing what we love, our way of being in the world, our freedom, our lives. Fear shrinks us, as research shows, while love and gratitude expands us. The poems in The Gardener are love poems and reading them brings to my attention that beneath the panic and fear, there is another world coexisting alongside, one that is stable and without fear, even in the midst of disaster. There’s an interesting etymological connection between the words whole and holy. They both mean whole. Holy ground is where we are whole. To be well means to be whole and is a kind of holiness. To be well when around you the world is in panic is to find holy ground to stand on. How might we discover this holy ground to stand on while in the midst of difficult times with so much that could cause panic? This is a challenge.
Drawn to expand beyond our own walls of comfort and understanding, we ask ourselves, how do we live in joy despite the circumstances around us filled with anxiety and for many, suffering—mental, physical, and spiritually. A friend I meet with is in her eighties. This week she stated, as she often does, “Being old is difficult.” Working on writing her memories of escaping Austria with her family at the age of two during WWII, she has stories to tell before she’s ready to die, she explains, adding on to say, “I need to learn how to die, how to live with joy and die. It’s an exchange of energy you know. We drop the body, but the energy goes elsewhere.” In acknowledgement of impermanence, I’m reminded of The Five Remembrances, many Buddhists read each day:
I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.
I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.
Perhaps from a certain perspective these remembrances sound rather grim, but their larger purpose is to see the interconnection between death and life, to live intentionally with joy in recognition of our short time on earth, and in that recognition, to focus our purpose. Death and awareness of our death, either eventual or impending, can transform us. Maria Popova in her article on the Brain Pickings site, “The Five Invitations: Zen Hospice Project Co-founder Frank Ostaseski on Love, Death, and the Essential Habits of Mind for a Meaningful Life,” quotes Ostaseski.
“I have seen ordinary people at the end of their lives develop profound insights and engage in a powerful process of transformation that helped them to emerge as someone larger, more expansive, and much more real than the small, separate selves they had previously taken themselves to be. They discovered a profound trust in the universe and the reliable goodness of humanity that never abandoned them, regardless of the suffering they encountered. If that possibility exists at the time of dying, it exists here and now.”
These seem like wise words for our time. In the midst of challenges, suffering and shadows that look like death, we can still open our hearts to life, to love, to the goodness that is ever present around us. We are part of each other and of the bigger energy of life that is ever present. What we focus on grows. We can be whole.
Toward the end of Tagore’s book, The Gardener, he writes, in section 68,
None lives forever, brother, and nothing lasts for long. Keep that in mind and rejoice.
Our life is not the one old burden, our path is not the one long journey.
One sole poet has not to sing one aged song.
The flower fades and dies; but he who wears the flower has not to mourn for it forever.
Brother, keep that in mind and rejoice.
We know life has burdens and that its flowers fade, but the journey is worth taking. Though their lives are brief, every day flowers’ blossoms are worth rejoicing over.