Today I turn 40.
When I was 30 I had a party with my friends in a Karaoke bar in Beijing. Today I chose to be all alone. It is a wonderful thing when one can learn to enjoy one’s own company. It is extremely liberating. If that is all I have to show for the past 10 years, I feel happy. (of course, that is far from all I have got:))
My husband is away. I got a babysitter to spend time with my daughter. I spent the morning in front of a coffee shop named One and Only–a bit tacky, but hey, English is not people’s first language here. The ocean is right in front of me. The cafe is still in the process of developing its oceanfront location. The heavy machinery is lying around. The beach is a combination of hard volcanic rocks, loose black sand and the occasional trash littered around. It is not the most pleasant walk on the beach. It is not the prettiest coastline but probably the best I can manage without driving too far. It is where we have spent some time before as a family.
The thing that makes this not so beautiful coastline rather unique is its backdrop, the sangkasan mountain with its sheer cliffs. It gives the location a more secluded feeling despite all the evidence of industrialization cropping around to its sides in the distance. I walked toward a corner of the shoreline that is covered by a row of large volcanic rocks with a height like that of a 6-floor apartment building. No one visits here. The walk to reach this spot is covered with loose sands that sink my foot with each step I take. It is a dusty and tiring walk, albeit a short one. Most visitors go for the scenery above me on top of the volcanic rocks with photo ops, facilitated by the stairs already put in place. This is a forgotten corner, except for when people couldn’t find a trash can, as evidenced by half a dozen water bottles lying around. It is my sanctuary. I found a spot I could balance myself on the uneven rocks. I closed my eyes and blended in with the sound of the waves hitting the rocks for the next 30 minutes.
This morning is the perfect blend of uncertainty and imperfections, as I have discovered life to be. The lines on my cheek and the droopy eyelids in my selfie with my daughter yesterday, the plumper belly, the plastic bag I forgot to put on the newly cleared trash can, the lipstick I didn’t go back into the apartment to apply, the quiz that I submitted without double-checking my answers last night(and probably lost 5 points unnecessarily) were on my mind as I drove toward this destination. Yet it is all okay. Learning to live with the imperfections of life is part of the triumph in my coming of middle-age story.
And the dog. Yes, the disheveled, dirty and hungry dog that I didn’t manage to find again, when I had bought food from the convenience store. He(or she) followed me for a while when I was walking toward my meditation spot. I promised I will bring something, but I knew there was no guarantee he/she would be around. I had to learn to be with the uncertainties as I stood there not reacting to my feelings. The old me would have tried to take the creature physically if I had the opportunity. As I gradually begin to grasp the essence of life, I must learn to respect the agency of every person or creature, even those wounded and seemingly helpless. As Joan Fairfax said compassion is the ability to behold pain of those you are trying to help without being taken over by it. I knew I don’t draw the boundaries for my empathy well. I failed at it when I was volunteering at the dog shelter several years ago. I felt overwhelmed by the pain of all the dogs and was frustrated that I could only walk them, and not seem to impact their fate much. In the end, I stopped helping any because I couldn’t bear visiting them. Now I understand real strength lies in being able to sit still with the suffering of others while doing what we can to help in small steps. It means being able to accept the sadness and uncertainty of not knowing the many we care about will ever stop suffering or survive, despite our best efforts. If I let the need to assuage my own pain overtake me, I would not be able to help many, if any. I left sausages along the trail I think the dog might wander around in. I don’t know if the dog will ever go back there or find it.
I thought about many people in my life as I meditated. I felt the wind hitting my body gently, heard the waves and breathed in the sea air. I thought about my mom, my dad, my husband, my child, my dear friends, and that little frail dog. I imagined my body slowly dying away, stripped of its water and chemical compounds that filled my cells and fueled my organs. A large part of me would be carried away with the wind, blended in with the air and descended into the ocean. All that left of me, after a few decades, would be my desiccated bones. I imagined my own skeleton remaining standing in that spot while the clothes I wore slowly became tattered. I wonder how much of my soul would be carried off into nature, how much of it still in my bones, and how much would have been absorbed by another creature and carried forth into new beings he/she/it might breed. I am not talking about reincarnation, not my own consciousness being reborn. I was imagining the sembling and dissembling of the elements of ourselves in various energy forms and its mysterious and unpredictable movement through the universe.
I thought about all the people I love, all the people I might have hurt, all the people I might have helped; I thought about their own unique way of constructing their human existence as they balance their spirit in the limited timeframe as a human form. I thought about how life is filled with universal pain, in my aunt’s anger against her sister in law, in my dad’s struggle to find new meaning in life after his lifetime companion died, in my constant search for inner peace, and in that little dog’s ordeal for survival. Yet life is also joyful in the same exact painful moment, filled with the love and wonders people bring forth with their creativity, intelligence, words and kind deeds. Our existence will never just be one thing. I am kind, mean, loving, selfish, stingy, generous, wise, foolish all at the same time in the same exact moment. In each moment, it is a choice to gravitate toward being and believing in the joy without denying the pain.
And in this very moment of the first day of my 40th year in this human form, I choose to feel the loss of my mom, the sadness of my father’s loneliness, the uncertainty of all relationships, the love for my family and friends and even those who hurt me, and the fear of that little dog’s hungry self, while enjoying the beauty of the never-ending challenges, complexity, and strength in this life. As I march toward the decay of my current life form, I am filled with curiosity, passion, and optimism for the moments still to unfold in the next few hours, days, months, years or decades that might lie in wait for me.
And with that, I am giving my soul a larger field.