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Being versus Doing - Stories

Being There

The human soul needs beauty even more than it needs bread.

D. H. Lawrence

The night was warm and clear. She could taste the condensing dew, sweet and moist and refreshing after the hot sun. It was the first such night in almost a month. Not that Julia would have realized. She hadn’t wanted out of the hospital in several months. For all she knew or likely cared, all days and nights since then were the same.

When you lose your voice, you start drifting inward and days turning to nights are not the important markers. Instead, life; institutional life, your life is measured in eight hour periods, by shifts of personalities. By groupings of people some who see, some who won’t and some who can’t. See you that is. Your fright, your anger, your preferences, your longings, your essence.

Who you used to be doesn’t matter, in her case micro-biologist, wife, daughter, book illustrator, cat lover, kayacker. Before her suffering, her usefulness depended on what she did. She was a verb. Her being depended on her doing. Now her being was simply being. She was a noun. Confined she had no choice. Confined to the hospital and confined to silence, she confined herself to her room.

Later as it blackened, the stars emerged bright and surprisingly abundant considering she was in the middle of the city, at Jericho Beach, at the Vancouver Folk Festival. A festival she thought she might have to miss. She had always attended faithfully; first as a volunteer, then with Michael. Then with multiple sclerosis. Then it didn’t matter.

When it didn’t matter she rediscovered Buddhism. At last a glimpse that her new life, her ‘noun-ness’ had worth. And through the Personal Network, Michael had arranged for her, she met Pat, PLAN’s oldest and wisest facilitator. Pat could see. Through Pat she renewed her connection to three Buddhist friends. And in renewing their commitment to her, they introduced her to the British folk/blues singer, Christine Collister, who truly has what the London Times described as, ‘a voice personally delivered by God.’ Christine’s best friend lived in Vancouver, was a Buddhist and part of Julia’s Network. Christine came to visit and gave an impromptu concert in Julia’s room. In that place that had made her a noun, her four walls hummed, catching the essential vibrations of the earth, still alive. Being there in that moment, abandoning all memories and expectations, was the truth of her existence, is the truth of our existence. With apologies to John Keats, ‘Being is truth and truth is being; That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.’

"When words fail, music speaks", wrote Hans Christian Anderson. The Class Four rapids of Julia’s MS had submerged her voice and were washing away her body controls. The chord struck that afternoon did not change Julia’s condition nor her living environment. Christine could not be a life saver. But her spontaneous and very simple act of generosity reminded Julia to savour life and all its extraordinary moments. And that is Julia’s gift to us. The ordinary is already enlightened. That is all we know and all we need to know.

In fact the inspiration lasted longer. Drinking deep from the splendour of Christine’s beautiful voice, Julia enlisted Pat’s help and arranged to leave the hospital for the day. Which is why at sunset on July 15, 2021 she sat waiting for Christine Collister’s main stage performance.

I am told the Buddha taught that morality reveals the true beauty of a person. That makes sense to me because the other kind of beauty doesn’t last. In this instance we had a moral beauty pageant. Starting with Julia’s courage and resilience, Michael’s loyalty and commitment and Pat’s caring. Continuing with Julia’s network and their hospitality and hospital staff convinced to entrust Julia to their hands for the day. And concluding with the unselfish grace of Christine Collister who mid way through her performance divinely noted the presence of a long time folkie and new Buddhist friend.

That, dear reader, is the kind of beauty which will nourish any soul and which perhaps is all any of us should expect or seek.

Al Etmanski

September, 2000

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