Gabriel García Márquez and his wife, Mercedes Barcha, in Stockholm in December 1982, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Gabriel García Márquez and his wife, Mercedes Barcha, in Stockholm in December 1982, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.Credit…Ibl/Shutterstock

By Miguel Salazar

  • July 24, 2021


A Son’s Memoir of Gabriel García Márquez and Mercedes Barcha

By Rodrigo Garcia

As dementia gripped Gabriel García Márquez, the writer known for his depictions of memory and time was on the verge of losing both. “Memory is my tool and my raw material. I cannot work without it,” García Márquez would repeatedly plead to his son Rodrigo Garcia. “Help me.”

In short, fragmented chapters, Garcia, a television and film director, provides an intimate portrait of his father as he has never been portrayed: forgetful, frustrated, despondent. García Márquez’s despair is agonizing to witness. He becomes unable to write or recognize familiar faces, and he loses the threads of his conversations as they are happening. He attempts to reread his own books — an act he previously avoided — and upon finishing them is surprised to encounter his face on the book jackets. He once asked, puzzled, “Where on earth did all this come from?”

Even as his dementia advanced, Gabo, as García Márquez was affectionately known, retained his wry humor: “I’m losing my memory,” he remarked, “but fortunately I forget that I’m losing it.” He was still able to recite poems from the Spanish Golden Age from memory and sing the lyrics to his favorite vallenato songs, his eyes beaming “with excitement at the opening accordion notes.” At one point, García Márquez asked to return home to his childhood bed in Aracataca, Colombia, where he slept on a mattress next to the bed of his grandfather Col. Nicolás Márquez, the inspiration for the beloved Col. Aureliano Buendía in “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

Then there is Mercedes, Gabo’s tireless co-conspirator, his “last tether.” Garcia recalls her tempered reaction at the moment of her husband’s death, when she worked swiftly with the nurse to prepare his body and let out only the briefest of cries before recomposing herself. She was fiercely independent: After Mexico’s president referred to her as “the widow” during a memorial service for García Márquez at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, she threatened to tell the first journalist she encountered of her plans to remarry. Even in the days before her death in August 2020, Garcia recalls, she remained “frank and secretive, critical and indulgent,” sneaking cigarette puffs despite suffering from respiratory problems at the end.

Garcia’s account is honest — perhaps to a fault, given the strict division his parents imposed between their public and private lives. In 1957, a full decade before the publication of “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” García Márquez destroyed all records of his correspondence with Barcha. Even with his father’s blessing — García Márquez told him, “When I’m dead, do whatever you want” — Garcia describes the disappointment and shame he feels of riding his father’s coattails: “I am aware that whatever I write concerning his last days can easily find publication, regardless of its quality.”

“A Farewell to Gabo and Mercedes” is in large part carried by anecdotes about García Márquez’s life, but it is most telling when Garcia is prompted to reflect on his own, and reckon with his insecurities. Over the course of writing the memoir, he becomes aware that the wall his parents constructed around their private lives also extended, in part, to him. He spent 50 years not knowing that his father had no vision in the center of his left eye, and learned only toward the end of his mother’s life that she had lost two siblings as a child. “In the back of my mind is the preoccupation that perhaps I didn’t know them well enough,” Garcia writes. “I didn’t ask them more about the fine print of their lives, their most private thoughts, their greatest hopes and fears.”

At the memorial service in Mexico City commemorating his father’s life, Garcia recalled one of his father’s sayings: “Everyone has three lives: the public, the private and the secret.” As he watched the mourners assemble, he wondered whether any were from his father’s secret life. Life, García Márquez once wrote, is not what one lived but how one remembers it. Some of those memories will forever remain beyond reach.

Pedro Páramo

Old friend Duncan asked me if I’d read Pedro Páramo and told me he had just been given the book. I regressed back to the late 60’s when i was introduced to Juan Rulfo by a Spanish Lit. prof who had us reading The Burning Plain a fine collection of short stories.. and now … rŌbert


Pedro Páramo is a novel written by Juan Rulfo about a man named Juan Preciado who travels to his recently deceased mother’s hometown, Comala, to find his father, only to come across a literal ghost town─populated, that is, by spectral figures. Initially, the novel was met with cold critical reception and sold only two thousand copies during the first four years; later, however, the book became highly acclaimed. Páramo was a key influence on Latin American writers such as Gabriel García MárquezPedro Páramo has been translated into more than 30 different languages and the English version has sold more than a million copies in the United States.

Gabriel García Márquez has said that he felt blocked as a novelist after writing his first four books and that it was only his life-changing discovery of Pedro Páramo in 1961 that opened his way to the composition of his masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Moreover, García Márquez claimed that he “could recite the whole book, forwards and backwards.” Márquez considered Pedro Páramo to be one of the greatest texts written in any language. Jorge Luis Borges also held Pedro Páramo in high regard. 

A classic of Mexican modern literature about a haunted village.

As one enters Juan Rulfo’s legendary novel, one follows a dusty road to a town of death. Time shifts from one consciousness to another in a hypnotic flow of dreams, desires, and memories, a world of ghosts dominated by the figure of Pedro Páramo – lover, overlord, murderer.

Rulfo’s extraordinary mix of sensory images, violent passions, and unfathomable mysteries has been a profound influence on a whole generation of Latin American writers, including Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Gabriel García Márquez. To read Pedro Páramo today is as overwhelming an experience as when it was first published in Mexico back in 1955. 


~~~ WATCH ~~~


July 27, 20217:


a portrait of Sandra Cisneros

Keith Dannemiller/Courtesy of Penguin Random House

This month on Code Switch, we’re talking to some of our favorite authors about books that taught us about the different dimensions of freedom. Next up, a conversation with the writer Sandra Cisneros.

Sandra Cisneros was a quiet, sensitive kid — the only daughter of a Latino immigrant — and growing up, all she wanted was some peace and quiet so she could write. So the now-famous author fixated on getting that space for herself, in the form of a house. She began what would become a life-long journey to find a place where she felt comfortable to be her fullest self: where, if she wanted to, she could “leave [her] hair uncombed, walk around barefoot, be rude.” Oh, and to write stories that would resonate with readers for generations.

On a recent episode of the Code Switch podcast, I interviewed Cisneros about her 2016 memoir, A House of My Own. I’d grown up with her fiction, including the novels The House On Mango Street and Caramelo, but I wasn’t sure what to expect of a memoir. It turned out to be a primer in how to live the kind of life I dreamed of: having a house, with the freedom to read and write away from the noise and expectations of family and society. And as a fellow quiet, sensitive child of a Latino immigrant, her experiences felt familiar to me in a way that I rarely come across in other books.

We talked about why she became obsessed with houses, what it was like to finally buy one, and — spoiler alert — what it felt like to fall out of love with it. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

A House Of My Own is a collection of essays largely centered around the houses you have lived in over the course of your life. Why houses? What is special to you about them?

To have a house means that you have a space in which you can retreat from society and create your own monastery or convent. And it’s really the house of the imagination that you’re looking for: some space that is uncensored, uninterrupted, and that inspires you to sit with yourself and have a nice, thorough conversation. 

I lived in a house when I was growing up that was filled with people and noise. My mother’s first thing she did in the morning was turn on the radio, and my brothers turned on television sets. And I never could understand that, filling up the silence with electronic noise. I had to have absolute quiet, and it forced me to go to bed after everyone else had gone to bed and to be a bit of a vampire as far as my schedule. And I did that because when you don’t have a room of your own, you create a time of your own, a space of your own.

As a child, did you have a vision of what you wanted that space to look like?

You know how little girls dream of their weddings? I dreamt of houses. I would go to the public library in Chicago and get out design books, and look at houses and then think about my perfect house. I knew that I wanted a window seat, and I wanted some sort of a bed that had little curtains, like the kinds you see in fairy tales. Something that was safe.

More than anything, because my father was an upholsterer, I thought of fabric. I would think of colors, of patterns — like, maybe I would have some sort of flowered pattern on the curtain that would go around the bedroom.

Speaking of your father, he’s a figure who appears over and over again in your essays as someone you love very dearly — and also someone who disappointed you, who supported your work but also wanted you to get married instead of becoming a writer. I’m curious: How did your relationship with him change with him as you started to assert your independence?

Wisdom From YA Authors on Leaving Home: Sandra Cisneros

Well, you have to remember, I was my father’s favorite child, so I had a lot of power. And even though I was the only girl and my father had very traditional ideas about what my life should be, I wasn’t afraid of him. I didn’t have to be afraid of him because I knew I was my father’s twin. I was him in a female form, and I did a lot of the things he did. He had meandered from Mexico City and wound up in Chicago. And look at me now: I’m in Mexico. I understand him better now after living in Mexico and traveling.

And he did come around. But my father, you have to understand, was trying to find a way for me to be financially secure. When he saw that I wasn’t going to get married, he worried for me. I remember him reminding me, remember when you came home to Chicago in your thirties and you were in tears because I sent your brother to pick you up at O’Hare and you didn’t have enough money for a luggage cart? I didn’t have three dollars in my purse. And my father was frightened for me. 

So later on when I started earning from my pen, every time I got an award, my father made me photograph me holding up the check. And he would look at that check and say, “Oh, my God, how many years would I have had to work to make that sum?” That was heartbreaking for me. So by the time he was dying, he and I understood each other completely; he even apologized and saw my life and understood why I had been so stubborn about the route I had taken. And I understood his stubbornness, too. And we just came to some nice peace, and there was nothing we had to say to one another in the last days of his life. We were one another. We were different halves of the same person.

You also write about your mother in your memoir. I was struck in particular by one sentence about your relationship with her: “I became a writer thanks to a mother who was unhappy being a mother.” Can you tell me more about that?

Oh, my goodness, yes. You know, one of my mother’s favorite movies and possibly books was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. And I never wanted to watch that film with her because it was a little sappy and sentimental. So, of course, I didn’t read the book and I didn’t know what it was about. And when she died, the day we came home from her funeral, I put the cassette into the player and watched the whole thing. 

And I just wept, because I saw that was my mother’s dream. She had dreamed of being an artist, and she couldn’t reach that dream. But she opened the door for me to become an artist. How lucky I was to be born in 1954, not in 1929. That made all the difference, to be born in a generation that I was able to reach my dream, and to have a mom who knew what it was to have a dream. I don’t know how to make any meals, but my mom made sure that I read books instead of being called into the kitchen when she was cooking.

 Sandra Cisneros Crosses Borders And Boundaries In ‘A House Of My Own’

How did that lead you to writing?

I think we’re all visual artists as children. And then I made the switch in sixth grade to language, and expressed myself with words. And my mom was always in the background. She was always drawing, singing, or doing something creative along with us. She would sing arias, and she would dance when Soul Train came on. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized my mother wanted to be something other than a housewife, and she never got to do that. 

Did you see yourself in her at all? 

My mother was a model of what I didn’t want to be. When I was a child, I saw her as being very unhappily married — to a nice man, but not her intellectual equal. He was a very faithful and responsible husband, but occasionally she would shout, “There’s no intelligent life around here!” I kind of knew what she meant, because my father liked television, while my mother liked reading books about political science and thinkers. I felt sorry for her. And I thought, man, I don’t want to ever wind up in a marriage like this one. I certainly do not want to have seven kids. 

I didn’t identify with her when I was young. But as I passed 30, I started seeing myself in her. When you’re young, all you see is what your mother didn’t do for you. But later on, when you get older, you see all the things that she was able to do despite you. And so I got to appreciate her and who she was, and discover who she was as I grew older. And of course, I’m just like my mother. Now that I am an adult, I see that. 

Eventually you left your childhood home, and you achieved your dream of living alone and working when you finally bought your first house in San Antonio. Do you remember your first few days in that house?

I remember every time I unlocked the door or locked it, I had this feeling of, wow, I’m paying for this with my penWho would have thought? It was just incredible to me. It was a two bedroom, 100-year-old cottage. And even when I locked it for the last time and looked at it one last moment, as I pulled away, I still felt proud of what my labor had been able to produce. 

On that note, your book ends in a way I wasn’t expecting — with you leaving the house that you had in San Antonio after spending so much time trying to find that space for yourself. Why was leaving important to you?

I think part of the fun for me of being in a house is adapting it and making it yours: changing it, renovating it, repainting it and putting in a new bookcase. Once you stop and there’s nothing else to do, you feel a little bored by the house. You feel like, OK, I’ve done everything I can, what’s next?

I was just there earlier this year. I rented an AirBnb in the neighborhood, across the street from my old house. And I looked at my house and my house said to me, Are you sorry you sold me? Look at me now. Don’t you wish I was your house? And I said,No, it’s very beautiful to look at you now. You’ve changed. You look different. I don’t even want to see what you look like inside. But, you know, you were my love. And I let you go and you blessed me and I’m happy to move on.

ArTist, gentlemen, man about Ophir and dabbler in the Haiku form


Four friends hike on Red

Chicken wings & old stories

Rain comes tomorrow 

Oyama-san, (1950-?)

Oyama (center) with his personal handlers at his Telluride art show opening

… Check out Gerry’s work …




It means that you can’t be a follower and find your Self.

You can’t look to another, even a Buddha, to resolve the issues and questions of your existence – the fundamental fears and torments that arise in the dark-night-of-the-soul.

The answers and epiphanies that satisfy and bring peace to ones spirit, cannot be given by another. You have to walk your own road.
Becoming is a lonely, personal process.

Dont ‘kill Buddha’. Kill the temptation to focus on another’s path – no matter how beautiful they are as they walk it.

Oscar Wilde put it simply:
Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.


It actually comes from an old koan attributed to Zen Master Linji, (the founder of the Rinzai sect). It’s a simple one:

“If you meet the Buddha, kill him.”– Linji

I’m sure you already realize that it’s not being literal. The road, the killing, and even the Buddha are symbolic.

The road is generally taken to mean the path to Enlightenment; that might be through meditation, study, prayer, or just some aspect of your way of life. Your life is your road. That’s fairly straightforward as far as metaphors go.

But how do you meet the Buddha on this “road?” Imagine meeting some symbolic Buddha. Would he be a great teacher that you might actually meet and follow in the real world? Could that Buddha be you yourself, having reached Enlightenment? Or maybe you have some idealized image of perfection that equates to your concept of the Buddha or Enlightenment.

Whatever your conception is of the Buddha, it’s WRONG! Now kill that image and keep practicing. This all has to do with the idea that reality is an impermanent illusion. If you believe that you have a correct image of what it means to be Enlightened, then you need to throw out (kill) that image and keep meditating.

Most people have heard the first chapter of the Tao, “The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.” (So if you think you see the real Tao, kill it and move on).


Dyung Le, Born again Buddhist

The context of this phrase is from a Zen story. The whole saying is “If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha. If you meet the Ghost. kill the Ghost”. My interpretations is different of this Zen parable that what has been enunciated.

Advanced meditators often get into a state where they start to see (“visualize”) various phenomena (light, flying, scenery, etc.) Very often they see deities, Boddhisattvas, Buddhas, holding forth with teachings, or appearing to give blessing, etc.

Since Zen meditators seek to be free to all emotion, thoughts, concepts, etc. the Buddha is but a “concept”. Thus if you “see” the Buddha, make sure to get rid of him. Do not get attached to him. He’s no different than a ghost, both a construct of your mind.

It should be noted that this saying is entirely within the Zen context. In other Buddhist schools (Pure Land for example), practitioners seek to “meet the Buddha”.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: A Novel Mass Market Paperback – by Quentin Tarantino

by Quentin Tarantino


Quentin Tarantino’s long-awaited first work of literature – at once hilarious, delicious, and brutal – is the always surprising, sometimes shocking new novel based on his Academy Award-winning film

RICK DALTON – Once he had his own TV series, but now Rick’s a washed-up villain-of-the week drowning his sorrows in whiskey sours. Will a phone call from Rome save his fate or seal it?

CLIFF BOOTH – Rick’s stunt double, and the most infamous man on any movie set because he’s the only one there who might have gotten away with murder….

SHARON TATE – She left Texas to chase a movie-star dream, and found it. Sharon’s salad days are now spent on Cielo Drive, high in the Hollywood Hills.

CHARLES MANSON – The ex-con’s got a bunch of zonked-out hippies thinking he’s their spiritual leader, but he’d trade it all to be a rock ‘n’ roll star.



Carmen Fowler LaBerge 5.0 out of 5 stars I never saw the movie, but I read the book

I’m not a fan of Quentin Tarantino in the traditional sense. I’ve never seen a Quentin Tarantino movie. But I like the guy and I was intrigued by the project: a novelization of a movie delivered in packaging consistent with the era. Publishing a book as a cheap trade paperback was genius and Harper Collins should be commended for going along with Tarantino’s inspiration. It works.
The book is a good read with several parallel (ultimately intersecting) storylines that arrive at what I can only assume is essentially the beginning of the movie. And, with some knowledge of history, the reader knows what happens after The Last Chapter.

Tarantino adeptly weaves history and story together in a way that leaves you wondering on every page, “did that really happen?” You are definitely going to ask, “Is that how the military teaches people to kill other people in hand to hand combat?” and “Was Bruce Lee really like that?” The reader learns insider lingo and gets on-set access to spaces and places, personalities and moments in history known only to the most insider of Hollywood insiders. It’s probably good that most of the people featured in the book are dead. I suspect they’d have some things to say about how they are portrayed.

Tarantino grants some VERY personal nods in this novel – to his step dad, to the guy who gave him his first dog, and to the fact that The Fourteen Fists of McCluskey (aka Hell River 1974) was his favorite movie when he was very young. There’s a personal storyline running through the novel for the author. The Hollywood featured in the novel is Tarantino’s Hollywood, the Hollywood of intersecting lives and disposable people. And if the author can be known by the world he creates on the page, reading this gives you a view into the mind of Quentin Tarantino you would not otherwise have.

I think I understand why all his movies are shot from one camera: it’s literally the way HE sees the story. His admiration of Roman Polansky is clear (230-231) and any question about why Tarantino bought The New Beverly is answered (217) as are a million other questions you would have asked about Hollywood if you’d known to ask them.

If you have sensitivity to derogatory descriptive language of people (women, gay men, people from Japan, etc), sex, parts of the male and female anatomy…this book is NOT for you. I suspect that only Quentin Tarantino could get away with saying many of the things said in this book. That said, ethical questions are raised in the subtext of this novel on nearly every page.

The character and story development are masterful and the book leaves you wanting to know more about what happens next. Which is exactly what a 1978 novelization of a movie is designed to deliver.


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

By Norman Fischer


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.