Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, like men waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. -Luke 12:35 (NIV)
I lay face down across the bed, happily drifting in an afternoon nap, stolen from a frenetic day. Even in my dreamy state I was aware of him entering the room, felt him lean over me, sensed his breath, but I wasn’t afraid. He lay his hand on my shoulder. I felt its warmth and heard him say, in a very gentle but firm voice, “Get up…It’s time.” I roused myself and turned to see him standing now by the door in a shaft of sun that slanted through the curtained window across his white clothing. His kind eyes pulled at me, his body poised for movement, drawing me to follow him out the door. I did not know him and yet he was oddly familiar, like a good friend I had known only over the phone or in letters. A slight smile. A mere turn of his head beckoned. I knew what time it was…
San Francisco, 1968
I walked down the carnival street named Haight and came to the intersection of Ashbury, swimming in a fantasy parade of scores of young people who were dressed, no, decorated in clashing colors and patterns, tied with scarves and tassles, bell-bottomed in jeans dragging along the sidewalk, leather belts tooled with “Peace”, hair, hair, hair curling down over shoulders, nipples edging out of blouses, and dreamy music floating on the incensed air. Until my first moments in Haight Ashbury of 1968, I thought I was “hip”. I wasn’t hip. They were hip. I was clearly the right-wing ultra-conservative idiot in this beautiful, flowing sea of humanity, despite my long hair and my bell-bottoms. Next to me, as my head swirled, taking it all in, a young man was hawking his goods: “Grass, hash, acid!”, he called out as if selling fruit from a stand “Grass, hash, acid!”. The entire scene seemed impossible.
I came to San Francisco because something big was happening and I knew in my gut that I should be there. Despite moving there, growing my hair long, and being opposed to the Vietnam war, I didn’t consider myself a hippie. Hippies were cool, self-assured, seemed to know all the answers without doubt, and also smoked marijuana, tried all drugs and got laid, a lot. All of that attracted me, excited me, but, most of all, it frightened me. Anything but self-assured, I remained a jealous observer, longing to take part, but afraid of losing control, unsure of the rules, in an exotic, sexy world where all the rules were being tested, where sometimes, there were no rules.
Nevertheless, there was a place for a non-smoking, drug-free “hippie”, a place as an artist, a poet, and a naive dreamer. That was me. I believed the whole line about the world needing love and about the here and now. That’s how I came to design, for a local printer/publisher, a poster that eventually became a national best-selling poster by 1969. The poster depicted, in Old English lettering on a gold background, a popular “proverb” making the round: “Today is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life.” It seemed a positive and powerful concept to a simplistic young man in his early twenties. I believed it was powerful because it was obvious that if you considered today the first day of the rest of your life then the past was gone and forgiven and a daily fresh start was always just a day away. I was happy to see it published and felt I contributed something to the culture of the time.
Just before bed, I often read a little, rarely a novel, mostly philosophy or religion, subjects which I never seem to tire of since my very poetic and passionate teen years. Last night I was reading through a book called The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren. On page 40, Warren mentions this famous saying I talk about above, and he suggests a revision to it. Wouldn’t it be far more powerful if it read “Today is the LAST Day of the Rest of Your Life.” What an amazing difference one word can mean. This new version says that today is the day my life on earth is over. Now think about that. Suppose you wake up and you understand that you will not be here tomorrow. Would not every choice you make this day be especially important? Or, more to the point, what would you choose not to do today?
Of course, most of us don’t get to know when our last day will be. We continue to act as if we will go on and on, even though all of us know the truth of that. So, what good does this new version of this old platitude do us, unless we try it out, unless we practice it, if only for a day? Suppose we just try to act as if we know this is our last day? I turned out the light around 11pm and lay in the dark a while , my mind whirling. I decided to try to live my next day as if it were my last.
I woke up this morning to fog drifting through the pines and a cool breeze swirling in the yard, turning back the curtains. My head cleared, and then I remembered: Today is the last day of the rest of my life! Oh. My. God. By nightfall, I will be gone and tomorrow’s fog or sun or rain will not find me breathing or laughing or loving. Before I could finish this thought I was up, tiptoeing past my young son’s room to the kitchen to boil water for a cup of strong English tea. Watching it steep, I remembered a poem I had written when a teenager, during that energy-filled time when you could find me literally in the top of a tree during a thunderstorm writing poetry on little notepad. It read:
A bitter tea,
Strong and sweet,
hot and dark.
A bitter tea,
There was much to do, today. Much to do, and much to not do. I sweetened and creamed my tea and went back to bed to sit up, sip, and think…with a very clear mind.
The human mind, or should I say, this human’s mind, has an attention span of nearly 10 seconds before its lofty intentions degenerate and go directly to food or sex or anything, anything but what needs to be done mindfully. So, living the day as if I would cease to exist sometime in the evening was not easy. Well, first of all, I didn’t believe the premise. I would live forever, even though I know that I won’t live forever. Nevertheless, the effect was immediate. If, and when, I could stay focused long enough to keep my mind off sex, food or anything but what I needed to do, I managed to give my actions a bit of thought.
No point in being too demeaning of my abilities; I suspect we are all the same. And, so what? That’s just the way it is and we already know that. But, in the course of the day that was to follow, there were many times that I considered what I was doing, was “mindful”, as Thich Nhat Hahn would say. This mindfulness went hand in hand with thankfulness. Indeed, they are, I do believe, the very nearly the same thing. Thankfulness, to God, is mindfulness, and here we have yet another convergence of Buddhism and Christianity. Except that, in the traditional conception of mindfulness, we are merely mindful, aware of what we are doing. It is a way of maximizing our experience, or of being totally present to our experience. This is, I believe, a good thing, for it seems to me that it is better to at least experience one’s life as it happens than to only look back on it with a sense of regret.
So, thankfulness is mindfulness, as I like to say, on steroids. Because, so what if you are mindful, if what you are mindful of is essentially meaningless? But if you are thankful to God for the creation that he has given and continues to give you, moment to moment, does this not mean that you are experiencing your life as it is happening, and, more than that, you are grateful to the Father that loves you enough to provide this experience of your life? Isn’t it better to feel this gift as a gift, rather than just experiencing the stark presence of cold unfeeling reality. Perhaps my view is sentimental, but you can’t deny that it is more palatable.
At the end of today, I had enough success in this practice that I was ready to die. Yes, I was. Really. There really was a peace and an acceptance that had descended upon me. Descended is the appropriate word, too. I do think that practicing simple mindfulness would have given me a somewhat similar experience, but at the end of the day, as I breathed my last breath, mindful, mind you, I believe I would have left this life in a state of mind that would have required far more bravery than I am capable of. Late afternoon, exhausted, I fell asleep and had the strangest dream…
Oh, when the Lord gets ready
You gotta move…