By John Pendall
I was sitting in the bath tub—a weekly ritual permeating the years.
I’d consider my life complete if I could stay in water at all times, floating, swimming, and diving away the days. Sometimes I’ll miss the water, as if one of my primordial genes remembers when it was a fish. No lines, no land, a life submerged in the blood of the earth.
Missing. It’s not often that I swim in the memory pool. Really it’s quite an empty pool. If clear memories were seashells, then I could carry mine in cupped hands.
It’s the feelings that survive the images; I remember feeling young. I remember newness, love, loneliness, and hope. I remember the joy of sunny Saturdays. The vibrancy of listening to music in the car. The fear as angry voices raise in the night. The longing for acceptance and attention.
This shimmering nostalgia reintroduced me to an old lover: Lady Sorrow. Sorrow has been the driving force in my life. It’s shaped my interests and my personality.
Sorrow brought me to writing, to music, to mind expansion, to Zen.
Everything I’ve created of value was created with sorrow. Sorrow has brought me boundless joy. This is critically important, dear Reader. The same way rain nourishes a flower, sorrow can give birth to joy. There is no separation between them.
As I sat in the bath, Lady Sorrow holding me in her cool blue embrace, I smiled. A thousand watt smile spreading from ear to ear. In the back of my mind, a tiny voice asked, “How can this be? What rational human being could find joy in sorrow?”
It could be that joy isn’t rational, that it just appears for its own sake and in its own time.
Joy is emotional beauty and sorrow is also beautiful. The mourning strains of a violin, the lonely snow-capped mountains, the barren desert. Sorrow and joy are very much the same thing seen in different ways.
It’s said that when the Buddha was a boy his father took him to a planting festival. The monsoon season had passed and the farmers were about to till the soil. As Siddhartha watched the farmers turn the earth, he was overcome with sadness. He was sad for all the insect larva that the farmers were killing. Realizing that this sadness stemmed from compassion, he was filled with joy.
I’m also drawn to the sorrow of others.
When someone is sad, I must comfort them. I sometimes see glimpses of the ideal romantic relationship in my mind. A dark-haired, pale-skinned woman with lucent blue eyes. She’s quiet, thoughtful, and creative. Her radiant smile and musical laugh reserved for only a handful of loved ones. The rest of the world overlooks her, but to me she would be the center of the universe. Sometimes I long for her and imagine her miles away longing for me. That one day we’ll find each other and, at first glance, intuitively know that we are pieces of a whole.
Memory and imagination—that’s where sorrow lives. I ponder if there are levels of awareness from the gross to the refined. At the gross level, there is pleasantness and unpleasantness. A bit more refined there is sadness and happiness. Refined even more there is joy and sorrow. Finally, we come to its most concentrated state, a state of mind that a name would stain. A state of mind that shatters all definitions, in which two become neither two nor one.
So there is sorrow when I ponder the fragments of my past. The sorrow of childhood sadness, and the sorrow of childhood innocence lost. Yet sorrow is lovely. Sorrow is why I care about you, why I wish you well, why I listen when you speak, why I write for you, why I do what I can to serve you.
When Lady Sorrow comes calling, open up your arms to her and let her tell you your secrets. Let her wash away division and leave you bare of delusion. Let her gift to you the joy of truth, even if it only alights in your mind for a moment. A moment is all it takes. To tidy this up, here’s a short piece I wrote on sorrow.
A Love Letter to Lady Sorrow
Sorrow is my muse, my mistress, my illustrious lover who keeps all my secrets. How I missed your tender, cool blue embrace. She has brought me more joy than anything else in the morning world. For sorrow gives, she gives all of herself with no complaint and no claim for merit. She is selfless.
Opening my eyes to myself more than any drug or scripture. If she took form, I’d bed her at once and we’d have dozens of children. I expect none to understand our love, nor none to know why I hold you close.
In the name of her pale face and raven hair, I’d circle infinity in a silken bow. My sorrow, sweet sorrow, you are my soulmate. You will always be at the heart of me, my shining jewel, my luminous pearl, you have given me everything and I will never let you go.
Editor: Dana Gornall
John is a Caodong Ch'an student in the Empty Cloud Lineage of Hsu Yun. His Dharma name is Feng Dao which means "Wild Way" or "Windy Way." He originally wanted to become a social worker, focusing on preventative mental health care, but writing is his passion. “Above all else, I’m just a writer. Words come, I write them, I drink coffee.”
Oppression and marginalization are key issues for John. “I was forced out of mainstream society at a young age by my peers. So I will always stand up for the underdog and criticize bullying, coercion, and any institution that relies on those tactics.” Asked about what the most pressing issue of our time is, he replied, “The environment. We’ve bullied the earth so much that it could almost be called marginalized.”
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