If you think with your head about dying, it is not real dying. When you are dying, dying is perfectly silent. Nothing to say. Just be one with the dying. All we have to do is just to be right in the middle of dying, which is perfectly silent.
– Katagiri Roshi (from last blog post)
Thinking about dying isn’t real dying – that has become vividly clear these last couple days.
Just the other day, see, I was walking with dog Bodhi along this very trail (above photo), me in the lead-dog position. This is a trail we’ve traversed in the frozen season probably a hundred times during our years here. It’s one of our favorites because it goes to a lake that’s surrounded by swamp with no houses and no access, except in the winter when dogs like us can make it through the swamp and enjoy the pristine silence.
So we were moving along, enjoying the 19-degree weather, following what seemed to be coyote tracks.
Just moments before the upcoming incident, I remembered a passage from an obscure Zen text that I’d read recently about how when a wild fox walks across a frozen lake, they have their ears perked to the max, stepping delicately. Apparently, they’re no dummies.
However, I thought, it’s been so dang cold for so long that this would not be an issue. I’d heard on the news, even, that the average ice thickness on area lakes was over six inches – good enough to drive your way-to-big SUV on, thank you.
And thank goodness too for the large-brain primate neural network, I thought, that I could figure stuff like that out and so didn’t have to worry with every step.
Next thing I knew, the world went silent and black. The impact of my butt on the ice and a pretty intense pain in my left knee helped jolt consciousness into rebooting in order to figure out what the heck was going on. My right leg was in water with no swamp bottom to be found under my right foot. My left leg was bent underneath my butt, pretty much as if I was sitting half seiza.
Apparently, my right leg had plunged through the ice and there I sat. Quite a pickle.
Thoughts then came in quick succession – “Left knee hurts, joint may be locked;” “Water on right leg isn’t cold;” “What happens next will be important;” and “Wow, Bodhi, now standing in front of me and gazing at me, looks quite concerned.”
Fortunately, the ice held as I scooted back, pulled my right leg from the water; my left knee was functional and I was able to stand up; and the ice all around us held while we stepped away from the scene of my near death (well, maybe not that near but if a few conditions had been different…).
I then looked back and saw a hole in the ice just big enough for my foot, presumably made by my foot, filled with black swamp water. Perhaps, like they used to say about UFO’s in the sixties, caused by swamp gas.
I remember being tempted to take a picture, yes, that would be nice … but surviving would be nicer so Bodhi and I headed for the nearest higher ground, about a hundred yards away. We made landfall without incident and walked the thirty minutes back to the house with a frozen right boot and pants soaked six inches above the knee to show for our trouble.
Moral of the story? Let the dog go first.
And don’t expect to know in advance when death comes.
Hearing about my not-so-near-as-it-might-have-been death experience, a student sent this poem by Tomas Transtromer, the great Swedish poet (born 1931 and still kicking):
One evening in February I came near to dying here.
The car skidded sideways on the ice, out
on the wrong side of the road. The approaching cars –
their lights – closed in.
My name, my girls, my job
broke free and were left silently behind
further and further away. I was anonymous
like a boy in a playground surrounded by enemies.
The approaching traffic had huge lights.
They shone on me while I pulled at the wheel
In a transparent terror that floated like egg white.
The seconds grew – there was space in them –
they grew as big as hospital buildings.
You could almost pause
and breathe out for a while
before being crushed.
Then something caught: a helping grain of sand
or a wonderful gust of wind. The car broke free
and scuttled smartly right over the road.
A post shot up and cracked – a sharp clang – it flew away in the darkness.
Then – stillness. I sat back in my seat-belt
and saw someone coming through the whirling snow
to see what had become of me.