Dying Not Dead

We have a small collection of potted orchids in our home. These same plants have lived with us for nearly a decade, give or take. But no one’s been counting. If I’m honest, I must admit that I think of our orchids exactly twice a year.

The first time is usually when the plant is in full floral regalia. Completely amazed as to how or when it happened, I am enraptured and in love. Every bud is in bloom, hovering and outstretched toward the sun, delicate and complex, an olive branch for life.

The second time I notice these plants is when they are withered and bare. Where once there was a flowering cascade now lies a mound of dirt. The pot contains a rigid straight-back stem. No flowers. No colors. Just a single limp leaf. That is all. This sight grabs hold of me. I think, look here. Death has perched itself in this corner with little hope for survival. In an act of kindness, there’s only one thing left to do. Toss the dirt and repurpose the pot.

But I never win my case. My husband always points out the one little green sprout poking through the moss or the juicy nectar drop at the tip of the leaf or the spot just there where the flowers fell a few days ago. He reminds me in his gentle way that the plant is just transitioning. That strange, sickly looking orchid is very much alive and well.

I realized that my view of the orchids exposed the thought  -- dying is the same as death. But here, a different idea prevailed. Dying was not the same as death. Dying was a transition. Not the absence of life but the movement of life. Even if I seem to always compare the orchid’s beauty to its barrenness and decide its fate, the plant pays me no mind. She withers up then blossoms again and again. And then it becomes apparent -- the big mysteries of life are seldom understood through comparison but through inquiry. Winter does not measure itself by the heat of summer nor the bounty of fall. Winter has her own temperament, her own song, her own chilly celebration of life. If we pay attention, if we look and then look again, the answers come in the most unexpected ways. It's a sobering reminder. Life gives us just what we need to grow.

In the natural world, when we ask then witness the world around us, we can sometimes receive an insight, a glimpse into what it means to be, how to live and die well. Whatever burning questions are in us – what does it mean to grow old, how can I ever really love, what does it mean to trust the unknown -- the essence of these questions reverberate in gardens, throughout the animal kingdom and in the stars, the moon, and all the elements.

While it may seem that the only way to really discover these treasures is to close our bank accounts, live on the land and channel Thoreau, we can still learn to cultivate that deep listening in our own busy lives at work, in our home, while caring for the kids or cooking for the in-laws. We can train ourselves to see the beauty of transition and the living within the dying.

How? There’s a lot of ways to converse with the universe. But one good place to start is to simply figure out your question. If you could receive the answer to one thing in your life – what would you ask? Once you have the question --- hold the question. While we may think the answers come as a response to the question, be willing to be surprised as to how the universe speaks to you. Go to parks. Get lost on a hike. Sit still. Put down your phone. Bathe. Listen to your breath like you would a symphony. Watch the light of a candle dance. Notice the steam rising from your tea. Go on retreat. Slow down. Become the question and everywhere you go, look and look and look again.


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