OLD NOTEBOOKS: East Anglia: Aunt Liz was an unusual person because she didn’t speak much, lived like a recluse and it’s only recently I realized she may have been Bipolar – it was so long ago, nobody knew about it then. I was often away and when I came back, she wouldn’t speak to me. The neighbours would tell me she was sometimes socially active, then after a few days she’d go back to her silence and not speak to anyone at all for months. Aunt Liz lived in that house for 23 years. She was alone, preferred to be alone and at the age of 85, she died alone. Bottles of milk left on her doorstep for two days, the police forced the back door and found her sitting on the sofa. It was 1989, I was in Japan, didn’t know it had happened until a relative called me on the phone (no emails in those days) and in a screeching, long-distance voice told me about it; said she’d inherited Aunt Liz’s house and was going to sell it – or did I want to buy it? Yes I did, so we got the paperwork done, I had the contractor go in and do renovations, but it was more than a year by the time I got back to the house.
Everything had changed of course, fresh paint, new plaster; the emptiness of a newly renovated house and nothing left to remind me of Aunt Liz. She was just not there any more – something about it strangely familiar; she was never ‘there’. So many times in the past I’d ring her bell, but no answer. Then I’d be in my house next door, listening for sounds, holding my breath and maybe I’d hear the clink of a cup or plate, and know she was there. Mostly she was simply a presence, so silent sometimes I’d forget about her completely.
That time I came back from Japan, the first thing I did was look for something to use as a floor cushion and sit for a few minutes of meditation in the place where her sofa used to be. This is where she would read her newspaper, do her knitting, watch the six o’clock news … this is where she died. Maybe it was on a day like this; the quietness, the sound of the birds in the trees all around, an ordinary day, and she paused in a quiet moment and listened to the birds; the same birds I’m listening to now, some of them their descendants. Maybe she contemplated this sound as I’m doing now, and had the same awareness of the hearing mechanism that carries the sound.
Get up and open all the windows, landscape reaching out to the horizon; hazy blue sky, the smell of the sea. The sound of birds enters the room, tiny fragments of a hundred melodies merged together in a flow of incidental harmony; no beginning, no middle, no end; blackbirds, thrushes, sparrows and in the quiet intervals, the distant mewing of gulls flying in from the sea.
Whatever living beings there may be;
whether they are weak or strong,
the great or the mighty,
medium, short or small,
the seen and the unseen,
those living near and far away,
those born and to-be-born —
may all beings be at ease.
[Karaniya Metta Sutta: The Buddha’s Words on Loving-Kindness]