The Barnegat Light House on the Jersey Shore is being closed until October for renovations. A Philadelphia Inquirer story on March 14 caught my eye because the Barnegat Light House is the site of one of my happiest memories.
On Christmas Day 2007, Laura, Anne Mei, Toto, and I drove down to Long Beach Island and visited the Light House. As I noted in my diary, “A bright, sparkling day on the beach. Laura, Anne Mei, and Toto collected shells while I sat in the sun, because my leg is still healing.”
The last sentence touches on the difficulties of the preceding month. On the Sunday before Thanksgiving I tripped on a Philadelphia sidewalk while rushing to get to the opera with our friend Kathleen Wright. I was hurting so badly that Kathleen got us a taxi to go the few blocks from Rittenhouse Square to the Academy of Music. It turned out that I had torn my hamstring by struggling so hard not to fall. At the funeral for my sister Mary Teresa, who died over Thanksgiving weekend, I couldn’t stand at the receiving line. While all this was going on, my job was in jeopardy because of civil war among the majority party in the township. The deputy mayor had just been recalled in a special election in September. Then, the party chair was ousted along with the long-time municipal attorney. All were being punished for their roles in a proposed affordable housing deal that I had negotiated. I think I survived only because of my supporters among the activists leading the charge against the deal. One of the weirdest and most upsetting phone calls I ever had was from an insider warning me that I was in danger just after I had received the call telling me of my sister’s death. I finally had to cut him short by telling him I couldn’t focus on politics at a time of raw grief,
So, a sunny winter day at Barnegat Light House with Laura, Anne Mei, and Toto was a blessing.
Speaking of grief, compare my reaction to yesterday’s Inquirer story to the “vortex” I went down when I saw the damage that Hurricane Sandy had wrought on Spring Lake, site of our last visit to the shore with Laura. I see again how grief turns into memory.
This is where I turn wonky. Those who find my philosophical musings obscure don’t have to keep reading, but I do have some thoughts I want to put in writing.
As I mentioned before
, I’ve been reading Rob Burbea’s Seeing that Frees
. It’s very slow reading because he’s very dense, not in words but with thoughts to ponder. I’ve stayed with him even though he writes in terms of abstract, universal nouns like “emptiness.” I really have a hard time with the Buddhist line of thought that goes ad infinitum
through how this, that, and the other are all “empty,” and then ends with “of course, you know, emptiness is empty.” I start off with the view that any noun ending in -ness or the like is just a word with nothing behind it, or in front of it, or in it. Burbea so far ignores the many Buddists who are nominalists. He addresses readers who want to cling to their self and to things. I keep responding “OK, now what?” Not that Burbea is wrong to speak in the way he does. If he talked the way I would like, he would get the same puzzled reactions I got in a recent book group discussion. We were talking about the sutta (SN 35.23) where the Buddha asks the question “what is the all?” It was beside the main point of the sutta, but I had to add “there is no such thing as the all. ‘All’ is just a word we use.” Sometimes I can be too much of a smart ass.
As he’s gone deeper into the Buddhist concept of emptiness, I’ve started to realize that “empty” is not a good translation for the Pali word suññatā or the Sanskrit word śūnyatā. Instead of trying to explain “empty” as being without some quality or essence, why don’t we just say “absent.” “Absence” may be an abstract noun, but it avoids the reifications in and of “emptiness.” We don’t think of “absence” on its own. We know something’s missing.
Through my love of word roots, “absence” reminds me of how we used to respond when our high school Latin teacher took attendance. “Absence” comes from the Latin word abesse, to be not here The opposite was adesse, to be here. When Fr. Walsh called our name at the beginning of Latin, we would respond adsum, I am here. In my mental wanderings, it’s occurred to me that answering absum encapsulates the difficult paradox of not-self.
My musings on “absence” have also reminded me of a phrase from the Zen teacher Joan Halifax that gave me much ease in the early years after Laura’s death. She describes grief as being “pregnant with an absence
.” I’m still working on the implications of that association.