“Yes, I still see them. But like a diet of the mind, I choose not to feed them. They’re my past . . . everybody’s haunted by their past.” – – Nobel Prize winning mathematician John Nash, upon being asked if he still saw his apparitions.
I seem to be very graced with a recurrent phenomenon, one that heralds the coming out of a rut, or for me most recently, a sort of dark night of the soul. I truly believe I’m the poster child for Christmas. I love the lights, the music, and though it may be seasonal kindness being displayed, the heightened sense of brotherly love in the air. What I like mostly is the symbolism of light bringing about a rebirth of my mind. What will sometimes happen at the tail-end of one of my aforementioned dark nights, no matter what time of year, is that I’ll spontaneously hear a Christmas tune playing in my head. After a brief moment of relief in knowing that somehow I’m going to be in a better place shortly, I will almost immediately observe my surroundings and current situations in a much more optimistic way.
To my surprise this time around, after a particularly dark and difficult four months, I began (about two weeks ago) to hear a song I composed around Christmas time over ten years ago. I mentioned in an earlier post that I began playing piano at age forty and took to it rather quickly, in fact starting to play at a church within a few months of picking up the instrument. One day while kind of warming up before a service in front of our little congregation of ten or twelve, a woman who I know had terminal cancer wandered over to the beat up old grand I was playing on. I was in the process of putting the finishing touches on a composition that I was to use as the prelude for not only the service this particular evening, but for quite a few to follow.
Embarrassingly, I can’t remember the lady’s name. What I do remember about her is that she announced one night that she was dying, I would never in a million years guessed that anything was amiss with her prior to her announcement or even afterward. I think the phrase “she/he lights up the room” is one of the more overused phrases I’ve heard in my life, and in fact can only think of a handful of folks I would apply it to. This woman was one. She had this odd, wonderfully rich laugh that I swear was coming from some other world or dimension, and for a person with terminal cancer, she sure did spend a lot of time encouraging and comforting other people. She had us all in the palm of her hand when she stated her plight calmly on the night of her announcement, adding that she says “thank you” to her disease throughout the day. We all felt just a little bit humbled. Myself? I was a bit squeamish from the very recent memory of my giving the finger to another driver on the way over, probably because he wasn’t driving exactly the way I wanted him to.
So on this particular night, she strode over to me and listened intently to what I was playing, a short little ditty meant to usher in folks in a calm and pensive mood. I remember her asking “What is that called?” When I told her I didn’t know yet, she said “It sounds like silver snow would sound.” I had my title.
She lived out something that I hope I get to embody one day, though I sense myself a long way from my goal. While she said frequently that when she found out about her cancer she was shocked into her sense of mortality, she also had graduated to a point where she was living a process of surrender, an honest-to-goodness living out of knowing that she truly wasn’t a body. She was merely shedding a layer. And doing so quite gracefully and in a state of peace that the rest of us envied. It was, she said, just a passing through a dark phase. What she was passing into was something the rest of her fellow parishioners could only imagine. That this woman did it with such genuine fearlessness floored us all.
I had other issues going on at the church at the time, including some disagreements with the ministers about what direction the music was to take. The congregation seemed to be unusually tight-fisted when it came to donations, and still none of the ministry saw the humor in me playing an instrumental version of “Carry That Weight” (“You never give me your money ..”) while the collection plate was being passed each week. I was also just plain not into the message the ministers were giving. Nothing against them, just not my cup of tea. So we parted ways, and it was with real sadness I heard that my “Silver Snow” lady passed away about six months after I cut off my attendance. Her dark night of the soul was over.
That “Silver Snow” would be the song that would pop into my mind while I was meditating two weeks ago, a song I hadn’t thought of for probably five years, symbolized to me the validity of everything I’ve heard various spiritual modalities, if not religions, state about passing phases of life and death. There’s an old shamanistic saying: “He who dies before he dies, doesn’t die when he does die.” That is to say that layers and layers need to be shed in preparation for a final release to be done as gracefully as my late friend displayed. My dark night is giving the strong appearance of being over, and yet it has given way to the birth of a real need for diligently monitoring my thought processes, to, as the Dalai Lama once put it, “treat every thought like an only child.”
“Silver Snow”is a really gentle piece. And since I heard it reborn in my head, though I still feel the residual bumps and bruises of my recent dark night on occasion, I’m recognizing them more and more as phantoms of my past. To be graced with the symbol of this beautiful woman returning to my life in spirit nearly brought me to tears when I first heard the song in my head, knowing that I was ever so gently being awakened from a bad dream. As parents sometimes may find out, if a child is awakened too quickly from a nightmare, whoever awakens them may be perceived as part of the same nightmare. For me at this time, all I have to say to my recent dark night is “thank you.” Not just for passing, but for all that it continues to teach me. As gracefully and gently as my lady friend lived her life, I was likewise awakened ever so gently and quietly by the miracle of silver snow.