Silence, allow me to disturb you for 1,008 words. There’s been so much time, such full time, but so quickly it’s tomorrow, and tomorrow again. It’s an in-between time, a liminal space that gradually gives way to a new normal. Off the bus, back on the street, but this time as tourists in a city we used to live in. We don’t love it, that’s for sure, but we’re hoping the cherry blossoms of spring will redeem the heaviness of winter, and that people will lighten the hell up. When spring comes.
As denizens of the liminal space, we ought to inspect our surroundings. First the word: the in-between. In Tibetan, it’s called the bardo. Between death and rebirth, between sleeping and waking. In the synapse between each inhale and exhale, it is that space defined only by what it is not. In the Book of Natural Liberation Through Learning of the Between, better known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the arc of a soul’s journey is mapped out from before death, to the days immediately following, and then beyond, past the shore where those monks and friends stand chanting “Take heed! take heed!” as the roar of time pushes onward. If the soul is powerless to see through the red winds of karma, powerless to WAKE UP in the phantasm of the bardo, which itself marks the end of the dream of life, then it takes another form. Animal, human, hungry-ghost, demigod… Buddhists have their categories, and each one has its obstacles.
Karma dictates that you choose your own fate. Or, as my favorite prof Robert Thurman says, karma is evolution. At the end of Plato’s Republic, in the Myth of Er, souls are gathered to select their rebirth, each one deciding according to the limits of their evolution through past experiences. Remembering his inferiority to Achilles, Ajax chooses the birth of a lion where he can be the most fearsome of animals if not of men. Agamemnon recalls his hatred for the human race and its misery, and picks the life of an eagle. The last to choose is Odysseus, renowned equally for his intelligence as for his suffering. He has known the emptiness of glory, so he takes the quiet life of an ordinary person and says he would have made the same choice if his lot were the first. “No photos, please.”
While perhaps heroes and hungry ghosts all have the chance to self-realize in the moments after death, Buddhists believe that only humans have that capacity all throughout life. Right now. And now. Yet we’re so distracted by our desires, our needs and even our language. It’s like trying to cut across two lanes on the Jersey Turnpike to Exit, whereas in the bardo all the traffic is stripped away. That’s where we are now, but as we cruise we’re still drawn by this vision of earthly renewal and repulsed by that of each new headline, each hard look at The Facts. Some have it much easier than others, but everyone still has their own message to hear.
Between wondering what mine is and performing in the world of appearances, performing for my students whose unique energies are now sequestered within a range of pixels on my screen, a dream of the future comes to mind. We have a spring festival more glorious than any elder can recall! We taste the sweet air and decide to order more of it! The Green New Deal is mainstream policy, not the least because we’ll need a New Deal. As we patch together the tatters of the economy, maybe governments worldwide will choose to use only those strips that are lightest, most efficient, and LEED-certified. So the vision goes.
Or maybe our moment will come when the air darkens again, and this time we notice it ourselves. After all, lines on a graph, no matter how precipitous, can never stir hearts like lived suffering. Like a plague. Although, for Pharoah, it took ten of those.
We have to be realistic in this in-between. When it comes to realism, also called the Absurd, who better to ask than Albert Camus? In his novel The Plague, the citizens of Oran struggle and adjust as the Devil’s whip flails the air above their city, killing and killing. But after a year, when the disease breathes its last in a main character’s lungs, the exultation and the mourning of the masses make them forget that the bacillus never dies, it only retreats. Though reborn, they’re not quite enlightened. “Yes, the old fellow had been right; these people ‘were just the same as ever,’ but this was at once their strength and their innocence,” Camus writes.
What we’re in is more like the impossible edge of a shadow: the penumbra. A penumbra exists, but strangely. Without an intrinsic, bounded self, it is not this, not that. We see it only in relation to everything else. Just so – no clear beginning and end dates rise to meet our grasping minds, though I will remember where I was on January 21st when I saw the NY Times notification about an “unknown virus.” At a departure gate in the Rabat Airport, about to be a tourist in a city I used to live in.
How is this moment so different from that one? In twenty years, we’ll have markers for the life and death of this non-living virus. But now that we’re all here, can we acknowledge that they will be fake? We’re still processing WWII, which “ended” in 1945, and no date will grace the tombstone of American democracy. Every idea that is born and blow that is struck seeps through the bars of Historical Event.
We are in-between, but that’s only partially true. So, when will we change and make good our promises and visions? I imagine if you awaken in the bardo, you know yourself and simultaneously the in-between as wisps of a dream. The time is now. And now.