Ramblin’ Jack at 91 ~ NYT

Ranblin’ Jack Elliot

crédito total, Lisa Issenberg

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By Erin Osmon

  • Sept. 28, 2022

TOMALES, Calif. — At a friend’s rustic home in a tiny village about an hour north of San Francisco, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott was trying to decide what to eat for breakfast. But he couldn’t resist telling a story.

“Some of the best oatmeal I ever had was in the L.A. County Jail,” the singer said from beneath an old felt cowboy hat, a blue bandanna tied around his neck. In 1955, while living in Topanga Canyon, he was pulled over on the Pacific Coast Highway because the taillight on his Ford Model A was broken. “They told me I could pay a $25 fine or spend six days in the clink.”

He was interested in religion at the time, and thought he’d finally have the chance to read the Bible, but his cellmates were too noisy. “I was extremely bored, and the police needed the space for more bona fide criminals, so they kicked me out on the second day,” he said. “They even gave me bus fare to get home.”

In his decades as a wayfaring folk singer, Elliott, who turned 91 in August, has amassed volumes of such tales, stories that blur the line between reality and fantasy, and translate as a particular, increasingly endangered strain of American folklore. He’s released nearly two dozen albums since 1956, alone and with the banjo player Derroll Adams (who died in 2000), but wasn’t recognized with a Grammy until 1995.

He’s known as an interpreter rather than a writer, singing beloved versions of “If I Were a Carpenter” by Tim Hardin, “San Francisco Bay Blues” by Jesse Fuller and the traditional “South Coast.” Though he hasn’t put out an album since “A Stranger Here” in 2009, he continues to perform live. His gigs this fall included a show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on Sept. 24; a short run of concerts in Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina start this week, followed by a tribute to John Prine and stops in California.

It’s a welcome return to the road. Elliott played 44 concerts in 2019 before the pandemic forced a 15-month pause, the longest he’s ever gone without stepping onstage. In August, he rescheduled two shows after contracting the coronavirus, though he described his case as “mild” after taking the antiviral drug Paxlovid.

Born Elliot Charles Adnopoz to middle class, Lithuanian Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn, he became so enamored with our nation’s iconography — the rodeo, merchant vessels, boxcar-hopping folkies, Peterbilt trucks — that he transformed himself into a peripatetic cowboy, a maritime enthusiast and a troubadour chasing the wind.

Today, he’s one of the last of the ’50s era folk music revivalists and beatniks who eschewed their parents’ conventions. He studied with Woody Guthrie, inspired Bob Dylan and hung out with Jack Kerouac. He was recorded by Alan Lomax, and has performed with Phil Ochs, Nico and Prine. He has covered, befriended and worked alongside American folk icons for so long that he’s become one.

“He wears the cloak and scepter of the American minstrel; he’s that guy,” said Bob Weir, a founding member of the Grateful Dead and Elliott’s longtime friend. The pair met in the ’60s when Elliott was opening for Lightnin’ Hopkins at a club in Berkley, and Weir, who was 16 at the time, crashed into the dressing room through a skylight to avoid being carded. “He dropped me into a conversation that we’ve been having for incarnations; he pretty much had me nailed to the wall,” he said. “I became acutely aware of who he was and why they call him Ramblin’ Jack.”

After decades of touring, the nonagenarian is resilient. He moves with swagger in his carefully chosen outfits.
After decades of touring, the nonagenarian is resilient. He moves with swagger in his carefully chosen outfits.Credit…Aubrey Trinnaman for The New York Times

As the legend goes, Elliott’s nickname originated with the folk singer Odetta’s mother. “I knocked, and the door opened a crack, and I heard her say, ‘Odetta, Ramblin’ Jack is here,’” Elliott said. “I adopted it right away.”

Since then, Elliott has spent much of his life traveling between the East and West Coasts, with a little Texas in between. He finally settled in a modest rental in rural West Marin, an arresting stretch along coastal Highway 1. In these parts, Elliott’s become a sort of mythological figure, recognized because of his career but also, more generally, for his vibe, a kind soul in Western wear who cares just as much about the local postman as he does about his days on the Rolling Thunder Review.

“He doesn’t distinguish between the Joan Baezes and the Bob Dylans, and the person who’s driving the bus or the truck,” his daughter Aiyana Elliott said in an interview in nearby Marshall, Calif. “He loves working people, but also all people who he comes in contact with.”

In 2000, Aiyana made a documentary about her father, “The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack,” that explored the real-life costs of building a mythic artistic persona and finds Aiyana grappling with Elliott’s unrelenting restlessness. In a moment of frustration, she begs for alone time with him, which he never grants. That plotline, she revealed, was more loaded than it seemed. “If there was anything keeping me from my father,” she explained, “it was that he had abominably bad taste in women for decades.”

At the behest of his daughter, Elliott has been recording his tales for posterity at the home of his friend Peter Coyote, the actor, author and ’60s era counter cultural activist. “They trusted I could keep him on track,” Coyote said in an interview at his home. “He comes over here with a really good sound man, and people like Bobby Weir, Peter Rowan and all these other musicians he’s known drop in.”

He lives quite modestly, a lot of people don’t realize just how modestly,” Elliott’s daughter Aiyana said. “But I don’t know that I’ve ever seen someone so rich in friends.”
He lives quite modestly, a lot of people don’t realize just how modestly,” Elliott’s daughter Aiyana said. “But I don’t know that I’ve ever seen someone so rich in friends.”Credit…Aubrey Trinnaman for The New York Times

Weir emphasized the importance of capturing Elliott’s history: “I’m a big proponent of making some space for him in the Smithsonian,” he said, “because an enormous part of America’s musical heritage lives in that body.”

Known for his storytelling and larger-than-life stage presence, Elliott’s greatest superpower may be his way with the guitar. “The way he attacks it, I only hear that in him,” Weir said. Elliott’s mighty flatpicking is also what made Frank Hamilton take notice amid the American folk music revival, when the two musicians were drawn to Washington Square Park. The former Weavers member and a founder of the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, called Elliott a “folk guitarist par excellence” and a “very good raconteur.” “He and I, and a lot of other young men at the time, were imbued with a romanticism of the open road,” he said in a phone interview.

Though Elliott has written few songs, a road trip with Hamilton spurred his most famous original, “912 Greens,” inspired by the house of a folk singer they crashed with in New Orleans. “That’s a talkin’ song,” Elliott said, meaning that he’s telling a story over acoustic guitar. “Guy Clark told me he stole the guitar part I’m playing for one of his songs, and I was honored.” Another conversational composition, “Cup of Coffee” was covered by Johnny Cash on his 1966 album of novelty songs “Everybody Loves a Nut.”

Recalling his earliest encounter with Dylan, Elliott described him as “a nifty little kid with peach fuzz, he couldn’t shave yet.” (The future Nobel Prize winner was then a teenager visiting Guthrie at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in New Jersey.) Elliott wrote “Bleeker Street Blues” for Dylan in 1997, after the singer-songwriter was hospitalized with severe chest pains from histoplasmosis, a fungal infection. “Later on, we’ll join Woody and Jerry and Townes/But right now we all need you, so stick around,” Elliott speak-sings over acoustic guitar.

From left: Richie Havens, Joan Baez, Elliott and Dylan onstage in 1975. Elliott performed as part of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue that year.
From left: Richie Havens, Joan Baez, Elliott and Dylan onstage in 1975. Elliott performed as part of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue that year.Credit…Bettmann, via Getty Images

The pair grew close when they were neighbors in the Hotel Earle in Greenwich Village, where they bonded over a shared love of Guthrie, and other music of the burgeoning folk revival. Since then, fans have accused Dylan of aping Elliott’s style in his early days, particularly his nasally delivery, but that doesn’t bother the elder. “I helped him get into the musician’s union,” he said. Today, the pair aren’t in regular contact, but when they do cross paths, it’s with a great deal of warmth. “Love you Jack,” Elliot recalled Dylan saying after a gig in Oakland in 2014. “I thought, ‘Wow, you’ve never told me that before,’” Elliott said.

Unlike Dylan, and many of his other peers, Elliott hasn’t seen much commercial success — partly because he deals in niche genres, but also because “he’s not been great at managing his career, per se,” according to Aiyana. Because he hasn’t written many songs, he receives far fewer royalties on album sales and streams. The bulk of his income comes from touring, which has its own risks. More than anything, Elliott has sought freedom, and human connection. “He lives quite modestly, a lot of people don’t realize just how modestly,” Aiyana said. “But I don’t know that I’ve ever seen someone so rich in friends.”

After decades of touring, the nonagenarian is resilient. He’s recovered from triple bypass surgery and two “little strokes” that left him unable to play the guitar for about a week. His hearing is assisted by small aids, but his mobility and stamina befit a much younger man. He moves with swagger in his carefully chosen outfits.

After a breakfast of oatmeal with berries and chopped pecans, and a plethora of stories about schooner ships, James Dean, big rigs, Leon Russell and other subjects between, Elliott loaded into his Volvo station wagon to wind through the cypress-lined roads overlooking the inlet Tomales Bay. He passed through his friend Nancy’s lavender field, and by the dunes at Dillon Beach where he and his friend Venta hike. In a vulnerable moment, he recalled his wife, Jan, the last of five, who died from alcoholism in 2001. “I was very devastated when she left us,” he said.

In 1995, the pair were living in a motor home in Point Reyes while she worked for Ridgetop Music, owned by Jesse Colin Young of the Youngbloods. One day, they decided to head north to sight see. “I was driving and admiring the bay on the left, and she was in the passenger seat and saw a sign on the right,” he said. “We pulled in and rented the house on the spot.” He’s lived in it ever since.

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“An enormous part of America’s musical heritage lives in that body,” Bob Weir said of Elliott.
“An enormous part of America’s musical heritage lives in that body,” Bob Weir said of Elliott.Credit…Aubrey Trinnaman for The New York Times

During the hourlong drive, Elliott’s profile set against the bucolic pastures rolling by and magnificent views of the ocean, he recalled other friends and acquaintances he’s known over the years, some who’ve moved away or died. Pointing to a run-down farmhouse, he wondered what happened to its owner: “I haven’t seen him in years, and I hope he’s OK.” Though Elliott lives in one of the most beautiful places in America, it’s clear that, for him, the landscapes are an added benefit. It’s the people here that truly nourish him.

Later, at Nick’s Cove, a local restaurant with a pier that stretches over the bay, Elliott chatted with a woman who had bellied up to the bar to watch a baseball game. “She runs a big dairy,” he explained as he headed toward a table facing the night’s performer. “Hey, I know that guy!” He lit up at the sight of Danny Montana, a fellow cowboy folk singer dressed in a hat and boots. On this September night, he covered many of Elliott’s friends, like John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker and Guy Clark, and Elliott hummed along in between bites of a hamburger. When he finished his set, Elliott invited Montana to sit at our table, and then complimented his “rig” as he packed up his gear to leave.

In just a few weeks, Elliott’s own show would be hitting the road once again. He was particularly excited about his travel companion, a former Navy pilot who also loves horses. “He just got a brand-new, red, Ford F-350 diesel pickup truck, and he’s going to be my driver,” he said with a grin. “He’s a good driver and a great guy.”

NOTED U.S. MOUNTAINEER MISSING IN NEPAL, AND AVALANCHE WREAKS HAVOC ~ NYT … Hilaree lived in Telluride, Colorado and was a friend many..

Hilaree Nelson, 49, appears to have fallen into a crevasse on Manaslu while attempting to ski from the summit.

The summit of Nepal’s Manaslu in 2019.
The summit of Nepal’s Manaslu in 2019.Credit…Marton Monus/EPA, via Shutterstock

By Bhadra Sharma and Emily Schmall

Sept. 26, 2022

KATHMANDU, Nepal — A noted American ski mountaineer, Hilaree Nelson, is missing after apparently falling into a crevasse on Monday while attempting to ski down a peak in Nepal.

Also on Monday, an avalanche lower down the same mountain, Manaslu, killed at least one person and injured 14, some critically, on a separate expedition, according to Nepal’s tourism department.

On Monday morning, Ms. Nelson and her climbing and romantic partner, Jim Morrison, stood atop Manaslu, the world’s eighth-tallest peak.

“Summit success!” they shouted, crying, hugging and taking photos with their three Sherpa guides, who used a satellite phone to share the good news with Jiban Ghimire, owner of Shangri-La Nepal Trek, the outfitter that organized their expedition.

Then, at the 8,163-meter (26,781-foot) peak, the couple strapped on their skis and pointed them down the slope. Fifteen minutes later, the guides radioed Mr. Ghimire once again: “big problem.”

They said Ms. Nelson, 49, appeared to fall into a 2,000-foot crevasse. Whether Ms. Nelson, an athlete and mother of two based near Telluride, Colo., survived the fall was unknown. After the incident, Mr. Morrison skied safely to base camp seeking help. He arrived around four and a half hours after the celebratory pictures were taken from the mountain’s peak.

On its website, the North Face, her sponsor, said of Ms. Nelson, “With a career spanning two decades that includes dozens of first descents through more than 40 expeditions to 16 different countries, Hilaree Nelson is the most prolific ski mountaineer of her generation.”

The incidents highlighted the extreme risks taken in Nepal by mountaineers and the local guides who support them and comprise an outsize share of injuries and deaths on the peaks. The Sherpas, members of an ethnic group in Nepal known for their skill at high-altitude climbing, fix rope, carry supplies and establish camps.

They are often the barrier between the foreign teams who hire them and death on the mountain, frequently expending their health or even lives to protect visiting climbers.

Ms. Nelson’s career has included working as a guide herself on some of North America’s toughest peaks.

Hilaree Nelson and Jim Morrison in Kathmandu, Nepal, after skiing from the summit of Lhotse in October 2018.
Hilaree Nelson and Jim Morrison in Kathmandu, Nepal, after skiing from the summit of Lhotse in October 2018.Credit…Niranjan Shrestha/Associated Press

On Monday, weather conditions on the mountain quickly changed, as they often do on Nepal’s top peaks, and an avalanche hit a separate expedition of climbers lower down the mountain, killing one and injuring 14. Four people who were critically injured were evacuated from base camp by helicopter.

On foot, “it takes three days to reach the incident site from base camp,” said Mr. Ghimire. “Weather is hampering search and rescue operations.”

He said the company would send a helicopter at first light Tuesday morning to the crevasse where Ms. Nelson disappeared. Mr. Morrison, who reached base camp in good health, will be on the helicopter for the rescue mission if the weather is conducive to flying, Mr. Ghimire said.

Bigyan Koirala, a government tourism department official, said the chance of a rescue was slim.

“Based on the briefings and difficult terrain, it’s really hard to say whether we will be able to rescue her alive,” he said.

The couple’s first major ski mountaineering expedition was in 2017, when they traveled to the Indian Himalayas to attempt the first ski descent of 21,165-foot Papsura, known as the Peak of Evil.

They did it, completing “an icy, 3,000-foot, 60-degree virgin ski descent with almost no visibility,” according to the North Face.

Ms. Nelson was the first woman to climb two 8,000-meter peaks, Everest and Lhotse, in one 24-hour push.

She returned to make history in Nepal with Mr. Morrison in 2018, when they were the first to successfully ski down Lhotse, the world’s fourth-highest peak at 27,940 feet. In the wake of their achievement, they decided to ski down another 8,000-meter peak, Manaslu, according to Mr. Ghimire — a tried but still extremely technically challenging feat.

They were far from alone on the mountain this fall. Hundreds of aspiring climbers were drawn to Manaslu after Mingma Gyalje Sherpa rediscovered the mountain’s true summit, the place at the top of the mountain just above the fore summit, which mountain researchers said had not been reached in autumn since a Japanese expedition in 1976.

Among those with permits this year were members of a rarefied group of climbers who have successfully climbed the world’s 14 highest peaks, and who had counted Manaslu as a successful summit until Mingma G., as the Nepali climber is known, found the true peak.

Manaslu is among the world’s most treacherous mountains, and dozens of people have died over the hundreds of recorded attempts to reach the summit. In 2019, an avalanche on the mountain killed nine climbers.

A primer for the upcoming winter from Joe Ramey, former NWS forecaster

Joe is part of the Mountain Weather Masters crew

Dear CPR,

Colorado Matters is a great show I try to listen to everyday. Thank you.

I am a retired NWS forecaster from the Grand Junction office, and was the Climate services focal point from 1999-2016. So I have spent some time trying to resolve Colorado climate patterns, but from the West Slope perspective.

On this Monday’s show, Mike Nelson talked about the winter outlook. I have written before about Mike’s seasonal outlook comments. He still has some inaccurate information for all of Colorado. And it seems Mike has a Front Range bias.

First, ENSO (El Nino/La Nina) has a complex impact on Colorado. 

La Nina winters favor much of the Colorado mountains with snowfall, as far south as Telluride. Crested Butte has a good snow response to La Nina. That snow response increases to the north. La Nina does not favor the Front Range or the southern portion of the San Juan mountains (and further south into NM-AZ). La Ninas are good news for the northern and central mountains including the headwaters of the Colorado, Arkansas, South & North Platte, and Yampa rivers. Therefore La Nina winters most often provide the best results for Colorado water use.

El Nino winters tend to have positive snow impacts as far north as the Highway 50 corridor. El Ninos are often good news news for the southern mountains, including the headwaters of the Rio Grande and Animas rivers. El Nino winters definitely favor the Front Range.

Extreme events.  La Nina winters tend to be the most stable ENSO pattern, with fewer extremely dry events. Both El Nino and ENSO Neutral winters show greater tendency for extreme events.

ENSO winter patterns. Colorado has a bimodal precipitation distribution with a wet fall and a secondary wet spring. El Nino tends to enhance this bimodal pattern bringing heavier rain in the fall and spring. La Nina, on the other hand, tends to diminish the fall and spring wet periods and enhance snowfall in the heart of winter. In monthly climate data, La Nina Januarys stand out as a snowy period.

Finally, ENSO only explains some 15-25% of Colorado’s winter weather. That leaves a lot to the impacts of random winter storms, but ENSO remains our best winter-outlook tool.

Thank you for letting me respond to the winter outlook portion of your show.

Joe Ramey

NO BEGINNING, NO ENDING, NO FEAR ~ Tricycle

When you’re afraid of what might happen, remember that all you have is now.

By Norman Fischer

SUMMER 2021

No Beginning, No Ending, No Fear
Photograph by PlainPicture

The Buddha has many epithets. He’s called the Enlightened One, the One Who Thus Comes and Goes, the Conqueror, the Noblest of All Humans Who Walk on Two Legs. He is also called the Fearless One because he has seen through all the causes of fear. His awakening moment, coming suddenly after six years of intense meditation, shows him that there is actually nothing to fear. Fear—convincing as it may seem—is actually a conceptual mistake.

What is there to be afraid of anyway? Fear is always future-based. We fear what might happen later. The past is gone, so there’s no point in being afraid of it. If past traumas cause fear in us, it is only because we fear that the traumatic event will reoccur. That’s what trauma is—wounding caused by a past event that makes us chronically fearful about the future and so queasy in the present. But the future doesn’t exist now, in the present, the only moment in which we are ever alive. So though our fear may be visceral, it is based on a misconception, that the future is somehow now. It’s not. The present might be unpleasant and even dangerous, but it is never fearful. In the full intensity of the present moment there is never anything to fear—there is only something to deal with. It is a subtle point but it is absolutely true: the fear I experience now is not really present-moment based: I am afraid of what is going to happen. This is what the Buddha realized. If you could be in the radical present moment, not lost in the past, not anxious about the future, you could be fearless.

If you are suddenly threatened by an intense-looking guy pointing a gun at your head, you will likely be frozen with fear. But even then, it isn’t the appearance of the man and the gun that you are afraid of. It’s what is going to happen next. It is true, though, that in that moment you are not thinking about the future. Your experience is immediate, body-altering fear. Your reaction is biological; you can’t help it. As an animal, you have survival instinct, so when your life is threatened your reaction is automatic and strong. But you are a human animal with human consciousness—a problematic condition, but one with possibilities. It is possible that you could overcome your animal fear.

There are many recorded instances in the scriptures of the Buddha’s life being threatened. In all such cases the Buddha remains calm and subdues the threat. Though the stories may or may not be mythical, they certainly intend to tell us that we are capable of overcoming the survival instinct and remaining calm even in the face of grave danger. The truth is, in many dangerous situations the ability to stay calm will keep you safer than your gut reaction of fight or flight.

But what if your life weren’t actually being threatened? What if the only thing actually happening to you was insult, disrespect, frustration, or betrayal, but you reacted with the alarm and urgency of someone whose life was at stake? And continued, long after the event, to harbor feelings of anger and revenge? In that case, your reaction would be out of scale with the event, your animal instinct for survival quite misplaced. You would have taken a relatively small matter and made it into something much more unpleasant, and even more harmful, than it needed to be.

Impermanence is the basic Buddhist concept. Nothing lasts. Our life begins, it ends, and every moment that occurs between this beginning and ending is another beginning and ending. In other words, every moment we are disappearing a little. Life doesn’t end suddenly at death. It is ending all the time. Impermanence is constant.

Although we all understand this when we think about it, we seem not to be capable of really taking it in. Buddhism teaches that behind all our fears is our inability to actually appreciate, on a visceral level, this truth of impermanence. Unable to accept that we are fading away all the time, we are fearful about the future, as if somehow if everything went exactly right we could be preserved for all time. To put this another way, all our fears are actually displacements of the one great fear, the fear of death.

These days we have fears that seem to go beyond our personal fear of death. Climate change is a catastrophe. In the fall of 2018 we had terrible forest fires in California. Even as far away from the fires as the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, you could smell the smoke. You couldn’t go outside, the air was so bad. But even worse than the experience was the thought that this is the future, this is how it is going to be from now on. There are going to be more and more fires, hurricanes, typhoons; the ice caps are melting, sea levels and summer temperatures are rising, the planet is slowly becoming uninhabitable. This may or may not be true, but there are good reasons to fear that it is true. So we feel afraid not for our own death but also for our children and grandchildren and their children and grandchildren. What will happen to them in the future?

I have a friend who is a great outdoorsman and environmental activist. Some years ago, when the US government was just beginning to become active in denying climate change, my friend got really upset. He was upset about climate change realities but even more upset that people weren’t paying attention to them, were denying or ignoring climate change, because the government was casting doubt. Here we were in a desperate situation, something needed to be done right away, and people were going on with their ordinary business as though everything were fine.

My friend was in despair over this, and he would tell me about it. As the years went on his despair and upset grew and grew.

One day when he was telling me about it, I thought, It isn’t climate change he’s upset about. I said this to him, and he got really mad at me. I didn’t really know what he was upset about. But it seemed to me that although he believed it was climate change he was upset about, actually it was something else. He stayed for a while and eventually he said, You were right. So, what is it you are upset about? I asked him. He said, Yes, I am upset about climate change, but I didn’t realize until you brought it up that there is something else I am upset about: I am getting old, I can’t climb mountains like I used to. Who knows how long I will be able to ride my bike for hundreds of miles or do all the things I love to do. I am upset about the climate, but what makes me feel this anguish is that I am scared of my aging and dying. The planet really is under threat. And so am I.

So it may be true that the power of our fear always comes from our fear of endings—our own ending being the closest and most immediate of all endings. When we think of the world of the future, we can feel sorrow, grief, and disappointment that we human beings cannot reverse course and do better, that we seem to be unable to solve a problem we ourselves have caused.

But fear is different, fear is desolation, desperation, anguish, despair, and sometimes anger. Grief, sorrow, disappointment are quiet feelings we can live with. They can be peaceful and poignant, they can be motivating. When we feel these feelings, we can be more compassionate, kinder to one another, we can be patiently active in promoting solutions.

When we understand the real basis of our fear, we can see through it. Will our lives end, will the world end? Yes. But this was always going to be the case. All difficult moments occur in the present, and the present moment, no matter what it brings, is always completely different from our projections about the future. Even if what we fear about the future actually comes to pass, the present moment in which it occurs won’t be anything like the moment we projected in the past. Fear is always fantastic, always fake. What we fear never happens in the way we fear it.

Photograph © Brigitte Lustenberger, courtesy Christophe Guye Galerie

There’s a traditional Buddhist practice to contemplate beginnings and endings, called the five reflections. The reflections gently guide the practitioner in meditating on the fact that old age, sickness, and death are built-in features of the human body and mind, that no one can avoid them. Life begins, therefore it has to end. And being subject to beginning and ending, life is inherently vulnerable.

The point of this meditation isn’t to frighten; quite the opposite: the way to overcome fear is to face it and become familiar with it. Since fear is always fear about the future, to face the present fear, and see that it is misplaced, is to reduce it. When I give myself over, for a period of time, or perhaps on a regular basis, to the contemplation of the realities of my aging and dying, I become used to them. I begin to see them differently. Little by little I come to see that I am living and dying all the time, changing all the time, and that this is what makes life possible and precious. In fact, a life without impermanence is not only impossible, it is entirely undesirable. Everything we prize in living comes from the fact of impermanence. Beauty. Love. My fear of the ending of my life is a future projection that doesn’t take into account what my life actually is and has always been. The integration of impermanence into my sense of identity little by little makes me less fearful.

The reflection on beginnings and endings is taken still further in Buddhist teachings. The closer you contemplate beginnings and endings, the more you begin to see that they are impossible. They can’t exist. There are no beginnings and endings. The Heart Sutra, chanted every day in Zen temples around the world, says that there is no birth and so there is no death either.

What does this mean? We are actually not born. We know this from science, there is nothing that is created out of nothing—everything comes from something, is a continuation and a transformation of something that already exists. When a woman gives birth, she does not really give birth, she simply opens her body to a continuation of herself and the father of the child, to their parents and their parents before them, to the whole human and nonhuman family of life and nonlife that has contributed to the coming together of preexisting elements that we will see as a newborn child. So there really is no birth. This is not a metaphorical truth.

If no beginning, then no ending. There is no death. In what we call death the body does not disappear. It continues its journey forth. Not a single element is lost. The body simply transforms into air and water and earth and sky. Our mind travels on too, its passions, fears, loves, and energies continue on throughout this universe. Because we have lived, the world is otherwise than it would have been, and the energy of our life’s activity travels onward, circulates, joins and rejoins others to make the world of the future. There is no death, there is only continuation. There is nothing to be afraid of.

Excerpted from When You Greet Me I Bow: Notes and Reflections from a Life in Zen by Norman Fischer © 2021. Reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications.