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There was a derelict shed behind the forgotten house where my grandfather kept his old tractor which used to plow an acre-size garden, his pride and joy and his reason for living, the only thing left of his family’s inheritance.
At 5 years old, I remember stepping into the old shed, my eyes adjusting to the dark as I breathed shallowly the imposing scent of gasoline and dirt. It smelled of rotting time, deceased decades, the bones of an age I never knew.
I remember seeing the rotting timbers which held the place together, the collection of rusted Utah license plates hanging on the wall, and a blunt chopping stump with an axe embedded permanently within, an agricultural Excalibur.
Against one wall was a sloping pile of silky-black coal, chunks the size of misshapen grapefruits, fossils revealing a forgotten time when people heated house and hearth by shoveling these bulky blocks into furnaces. As my great-grandparents died, so did their need for coal and this pile of forgotten fuel stood as a mute reminder of the invariability death.
Mostly, I remember sitting on top of that old tractor in its wide seat, looking over to see the enormous rear tires dwarfing the small front ones. I remember trying to reach the clutch and gas and pedals with my short, child's legs and handling the stick. The top of the gear shifter was decorated with a black skull.
Now, the message of it tells me that we are all dust. “Go ahead,” it seemed to whisper. “Plant, sow, till. But one day you too will be planted in this earth and that is the simple, hard truth, a truth as rigid as the axe embedded into the stump, and as true as there is soil to plant in."
Decades later, many of my own years buried, the shed has now probably been razed. Today, I'm increasingly aware of my own mortality as I see family members and loved ones, one by one, young and old, whose harvest times have arrived and are themselves planted in the earth.
And so like everyone else, I try to make meaning of the relatively small time I enjoy walking on top of this earth instead of being buried beneath it. The poet Maria Tsvetaeva speaks to this perfectly when she says in her poem, I Know The Truth:
I know the truth – give up all other truths!
No need for people anywhere on earth to struggle.
Look – it is evening, look, it is nearly night:
what do you speak of, poets, lovers, generals?
The wind is level now, the earth is wet with dew,
the storm of stars in the sky will turn to quiet.
And soon all of us will sleep under the earth, we
who never let each other sleep above it.
When I read the first line “I know the truth – give up all other truths!” my mind snaps to attention. What monumental truth has she discovered and needs to tell me? To me, she’s asking the human race to stop struggling and look at the beauty of the world, the night, and of course the oncoming dusk of our own lives. She says, take a look at the world around us and see how we are all part of the big picture.
Written in a time in Soviet history when poets were persecuted and killed, Maria Tsvetaeva makes a beautiful inclusion of the generals, the very people who sought to eliminate poets, “what do you speak of, poets, lovers, generals?” and by so doing, speaks to a bigger truth, even beyond the threat of her own death, that we are all human, subject to the same fate, “And soon all of us will sleep under the earth . . . .”
By pointing to the fact that, “all of us will sleep under the earth, we/ who never let each other sleep above it”, she uses her voice as a poet, an oracle, to illuminate the futility of struggling with each other when we will all eventually experience the same fate.
This is not a message of doom and gloom. It’s a wake-up call to practice being in the here and now and to look beyond dogma and idealism and search for the divine humanity everyone including “lovers, poets, generals.” I’m sure all of us fit into one if not all three of those categories
What does it mean to be human and how do we truly appreciate another day in the sun?
Both poetry and poses are a chance to practice being human. Through them, we practice the vicissitudes of living, the ups and downs, the tension release, the struggles and joys. Perhaps mostly we practice cultivating paying attention before the sun has set and it is too late.
And by practicing, my hope is that we find something within us, something deep down that we can call real, something that we find to be fundamentally beautiful and good. Finding this within, even to a small degree, may we look around and find the same quality in everything else, particularly those people around us, family, loved ones, strangers.
May we, through practicing yoga and therefore better understanding ourselves, see the beauty, majesty and miracle of everything.
Perhaps this is what it means to truly see.