avidyasmita raga dvesabhinivesah klesah
– – Patanjali Yoga Sutra 2.3
“Lately, it’s all contradiction
Lately, I’m not here
Lately, I lust over self
Lust turn into to fear”
— Kendrick Lamar, Lust
Today I am 44. When I turned 40, I went through the familiar dread and dismay many people know with the arrival of that arbitrary yet mysterious number: youth is dead, officially buried by some cruel cultural agreement that the only thing left for men is sophistication and wealth, for women a gracious turning inward to make room for her smooth skinned, more energetic young cohorts. Unless, of course, she insists on being noisy about career, sexuality, beauty, misogyny and children, in which case she is either a slut (cougar – a more wretched epithet could hardly be imagined) or a shrew. Today, especially, in the wordlessly tragic days of Trump and his henchmen, it seems men are encouraged to rage against the dying of the light (or rage against anything, really), while women should keep their fight squarely centered on an expanding waistline or missing a Botox appointment; we elected, after all, a man who freely calls women disgusting pigs and thinks nothing of raping the cute ones… but boys will be boys. And girls will be girls, until they are 40; then they are old.
When I turned 40 my inner world was transformed into a depressed charred landscape. I went through what one can only call a catastrophic, near-death breakdown. The collapse was due to many internal weaknesses, but certainly part of it was due to exactly how much I lived in tune with our obsession over youth, over the new and forever fresh; I was past my expiration date. I knew, too, that my marriage was somehow dissolving, or that perhaps it had never known solidity to begin with: my world became a mirage, an illusion that I saw, with my newly acquired antiquity, as delusion. People with greatly unrealized potential might suffer this turning of the decade more acutely than others, although success brings with it untold problems of its own unique nature. How, I often wondered during this time, did a dancer like Wendy Whelan cope with being ever more soulful in her dancing, while surely her body had begun its subtle show of cruel betrayal? A famous dancer once said, “Now my mind knows how to dance, and my body cannot.” A beautiful summing up of a life lived with intensity and discipline. What, though, of the rest of us, those who could have danced, but somehow always found reason to sit on the sidelines?
Those myopic questions occupied me for a couple of years. Now I don’t care. Today, when I began my day, I knew it was my birthday, but for several hours I couldn’t remember my age. Not out of the senility that is sure to come, but out of indifference. I am a middle aged woman. And that fact, or more accurately that label, has no meaning to me. The sad attachments to beauty, lost years, the ideal of who I was meant to be remain, but they are more and more blurred, like a Pointellist painting left in a soft rain. This morning I woke up in a small casita in Northern New Mexico, my beautiful, deeply troubled 7 year old daughter sleeping at my side. “Gift,” I thought, and then drifted back to sleep, vaguely wondering how she, not I, will weather the difficult months and years ahead.
My life, seen from quite literally any angle (in the so-called developed world, at least), is a sunken wreck. My health is faltering with deepening asthma and auto-immune issues. I’m about to lose my health insurance and wander into the desert of Trump’s poisoned maze of non-coverage. In just over one month I will be divorced, and the home to which I am moving, a sweet little Victorian bungalow, is a pathetic mess, having been half destroyed by a corrupt contractor. The city in which I live is toxic to my health, and causes my asthma to be ever worsening, but my estranged husband and I were never able to settle on a place more conducive to the healing of my struggling lungs. I am in terrible need of water, of damp air, of air that doesn’t carry with it every particle of dust picked up from hundreds of miles around. I will be a single mother who knows a little bit about a lot of things, and almost nothing about the things that make up the practicalities of life. Money. Career. Material ambition. Living on the fucking ground. How does a woman who has her entire lived with ghosts in the ether or shadowed and lost souls in the ocean’s depths, suddenly live on the dry cracked Earth?
The answer is woven, intricately, into Practice. Meditation, asana, pranayama, prajna (insight), can lead one to a more and more insular world, or it can open one’s mind to the limitless quality of non-self, of actions made without all their usual attachments and agendas. Raga is the Sanskrit word for attachment; it is the true heart of practice. Why practice if not to engage with the deepest shadows, the most difficult patterns of one’s attachments, including all the beliefs we take to be concrete truths, and are in the end as solid as an eroding fresco.
It is evening. The grasses outside my window glow yellow in the clouded twilight; there is a storm to the South. It is my birthday. I’ve told no one, I’ve spoken to no one except my daughter. She just said to me, while I was writing the paragraph above, “Mama, will I die when I’m a teenager?”
I turned and looked at her.
“Look at me,” I said.
“No,” I said. “You will not die when you are a teenager.”
“But I could,” she said. “I could.”
“Oh, but you won’t. I know,” I lied.
Then I said: “You will die when you are a very, very old woman, filled with wrinkles like great-Grandmother.” She laughed when I said this.
“And when you die, you will be ready.”
“So I have time.” She said this as a statement, not a question.
“You have time.”
Avidya means ignorance. It is one of the fundamental blocks to practice. Without seeing the ignorance of the mind, one never sees the mind’s attachments. I suppose my attachment to my daughter, to her confidence in the exquisite Great Forever of existence that all little children have, spurs me on to cultivate a continued ignorance in her life. And, I suppose, my own.
As I grow older, and wander blindly into this new, strange territory of my increasingly alien life – solitary, stupid toward the simplest facts of daily needs – my practice, my willingness to engage with raga widens and deepens.
But the whisper remains: Do you remember? Do you remember the days when there was no gap between your body and the Infinite? Do you remember speeding down the highway with a stranger, or stargazing on LSD, or hitchhiking to Prague? Thinking, I cannot imagine Death; it is what happens to others.
The beauty of illusion and the speed of youth and the false connection of the body to the endless river of life…life…life and yet more life: it leads to such pain later, as the attachment is revealed to be a trick. Why wish it upon my daughter? Is it because I still yearn for it myself? Perhaps.
More likely though is that a human life has a trajectory, and it is a trajectory of limitless joy followed by limitless suffering, and then the slow, slow stepping away from the whole damn show. At 7 we are the shining star; at 40 we might grieve the departure of an audience. For me, at 44, I am content, for a moment anyway, to just watch the stagehands take down the set.