Christmas morning crept over the hillside misty and grey. On our mattress in the rafters of grass, our daughter unwrapped her first fishing rod, and upended her Christmas stocking for the first time. We ate chocolate and mango amid the ruffles of duvet, then descended to clean dishes and wrap a few more presents. We ran late preparing to leave the house for my mother-in-law’s. Eventually we loaded Emma and presents into the car, napless and without a proper breakfast. I was eager to get on the road, to cover our toddler’s needs of food and sleep as much as for the sake of punctuality. The clamminess of the day itched me with the damp heat of December. We bumped down the dirt track, opened and closed two farm gates, and were passing the dam when she spotted the bramble bushes. The berries were ripe with sun under the cloud-wreathed sky.
I sighed and unbuckled her from her carseat. Another stop. Another pause. Our lateness spread out from our silver sedan and trickled down towards the stream. I leaned against the car as I watched her forage with her father. She was wearing a billowing white shirt with a tiny pair of red shorts. Her head of pale brown curls reached halfway up my husband’s thigh. His face was hidden beneath a leather brim as his fingers picked gingerly through the thorned branches. I blinked and my world had become something new. I sighed again, but this time the breath that left my lips had altered slightly. I had moved from frustration to acceptance and then, with shifts inside smaller than the step of the ants across the pebbles at my bare feet, to joy. We had reached the end of the year, we were moving towards a celebration of the new, of hope, of change profound and decisive. What would I gain from a punctual arrival at Christmas lunch, and what would I lose? Here in front of me was all that mattered: my family, my love, and awareness of the present so precious and so fragile it is crushed by the mere passing of moments. What if this was my last moment? I asked myself. The filter of death had been a recurring theme for me in 2016. In Tibetan Buddhism, maranasati, or awareness of death, is considered the most important spiritual practice of all. It is the one that gives meaning to all the others. It comprises a conscious focus on three irrefutable truths: (1) Everyone dies. (2) Our time of death is uncertain. (3) At the time of death, only spiritual power will be of any use. I came across the idea of meditating on death in a book on business. This book, The Diamond Cutter, conveys a simple message: make the money, enjoy the money, and make sure it all means something in the end. It goes on to give specific advice on how to achieve these things. I recommend the book highly, especially for some novel understanding of the former two, but it was the later section which struck me deepest. It was here I learnt of the meaningfulness that death grants.
At first I was wary of maranasati. A cursory inspection of death is wont to inspire the washing out of meaning from our everyday pursuits. As do many in our culture, I previously avoided such morbid contemplations, steering my thoughts instead towards life and doing. The inevitability of death is something defeating. It is after all the ultimate defeat to which we are all subject. So what could it possibly have to offer the living? But although it made me uncomfortable, the idea of maranasati intrigued me. As the months wound past, I brought my thoughts gently back to death, opening the door to maranasati a little wider each time. As the authors of The Diamond Cutter point out, it is a sustained interest in death which brings us the most benefits.
The first effect was a clearing out of my spaces. I emptied cupboards and shelves, piling up everything that no longer served me, that no longer brought me joy, into bin bags and boxes. This decluttering brought a rush of lightness. It gained its own momentum. In three years, our house of three bedrooms, two living rooms, kitchen, pantry and garage had filled to the brim. What I did not throw away I passed on to our maid, and the farm bakkie left our home many times straining under its load. As the rooms emptied, I looked for more to lighten. My husband I decided it was time to hand over managing of the farm to someone else. It was time for us to move out of a home that had never really been ours, and into a space custom-designed for the life we wanted to live. And despite being parents and owning our own business, what we wanted was light and small and manageable. We wanted something that would nurture us, not exhaust us. So we built a home on a hillside, and are crafting each inch of it to reflect what we value, and let go of all the rest. And my notion of work morphed and shifted. All this decluttering of the unimportant gave me the space to reflect on the needs of those around me. Starting a school, an idea which had been in my dreams and thoughts for years, took root in the world. Time and again I remembered it was death that gave me the courage to grow something new. Because if death is coming in the end, and no-one could ever tell me when that end is nigh, what really do I have to lose? What is the real measure of the risks of following my vocation?
That strange lingering gap between Christmas and the eve of the New Year gave me some time to ask questions of this year in which my preparations would turn into happenings. What would I choose as the axis on which my coming year would turn? What was I going to leave behind and what was I journeying towards? I performed cleansing rituals, releasing the old and clearing space for the new. I put together a list of priorities: family, health*, purpose, art, and adventure. All the while the memory of our Christmas forage among the bramble bushes floated above my consciousness.
Brambles grow wild in the farmlands where we live. They conspire with the birds, who happily accept their offerings and carry their seed on their travels. With this ingenious and effective system of propagation they conquer far and wide. These invaders from another land spread their tenacious prickly arms along rivers and across fields. They confer in sheltered vales and beneath barbed-wire boundaries. They stand alone and fierce on windy hilltops. They take up grazing, snatch holes in clothing, and block up paths. Then, to make up for their seasons of obstinacy, for a few short weeks of the year they deck out their branches with purple-black treasure. Their luscious fruit dot the veld and pasture, freely available for all the creatures of their home to share in.
When I stood among these juicy glistening baubles on Christmas Day, the wind whispered across my skin. My daughter’s lips stained black and my husband’s laughter rolled down towards the water. My blood rushed with inspiration and my cheeks flushed with joy. We were a stone’s throw from our home, and we were the most intrepid of adventurers, indulging in a thrill of an ancient innocent sort. All that mattered was the moment warm between my palms; all the rest had drifted away. This pause on the hillside embodied my values, but it gave me even more than that. It painted the path towards living the life I dream of. Because this moment needed no forethought, no vast store of wealth, no special talents, no unusual stroke of luck. What it asked of me was simple. To have all I ever dreamed of I need to let myself be the kind of person who stops on the side of the road to pick wild berries. It may not be easy, but it is simple.
*This post was sponsored by Colleen of the Midlands House of Healing. Once a month her strong intelligent hands and sensitive spirit coax out meaning and wisdom and eventually words from my soul. Monthly therapy, in the form of massage, energy treatment, and the sou-searching that accompanies it, is a cornerstone of my commitment to health. When my mind, body and spirit are strong and clean and in balance, I am able to move forward with my other goals: to be present with my family, to support them in their own journeys, to live a life of purpose, to do what good I can, to feel the shiver of the divine in the expression of my art, to savor the miracle of life through a sense of excitement and adventure. Colleen is a skilled mentor in these endeavours, not only through her practice of massage and reiki, but also through her example as she works hard to live as the best version of herself. This year, journey to health and purpose and love and expression and vivacity with me. Embracing values that run counter to mainstream culture is challenging. Set yourself up for success by creating the conditions for meaningful moments. Book a massage (084 603 0604) or that check-up at the doctor, join a class, donate to something meaningful, purge your home, plant some seeds, volunteer your time and resources, read what inspires you, schedule in white space, and follow only those which make you better. Death is much too close for excuses.