Thursday, July 21, 2011

When the Pasque Flowers Bloom

Photo by Robin Hao Gonzalez.
The pasque flower is South Dakota's state flower.

Tuesday evening I joined a discussion of Thich Nhat Hanh's Peace Is Every Step. In attendance, primarily, were students and teachers in the Honors College at South Dakota State University. At the close of our evening, faculty member Chuck Woodard posed a question for us to reflect on: "Who is one of the most mindful people you have ever known? Someone who, because of the quality of the attention s/he gave to each moment, was able to be present to you and others in a profound way?"

Chuck went on to describe such a person in his life--David, a faculty colleague from years before. David, it seems, was very "in the moment" and very attuned to nature, which he not only studied but took great delight in. Chuck confessed that when he was first becoming acquainted with David, he was "frustrated" by the man's way of being. Unlike many professors, David wasn't linear in his thinking; he wasn't ambitious and driven; he wasn't in a hurry to get from point A to point B. He appreciated the here and now.

David would often take Chuck and other friends on walks across native prairie grasslands. While the others wandered ahead, anxious to get on, David would take his time, constantly calling them back, bending down to identify this special plant or that, describing for them its noteworthy qualities. It took a while, Chuck said, to learn from David to slow down. To be where he was, when he was there. To pay attention. To offer respect.

As he was approaching retirement, David was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He dug into the subject matter of his own dying with the same mindfulness he had brought to the living of his life. As his body wasted, his mind remained clear, and he put it to good use. He invited many of his colleagues and friends to his bedside for rigorous discussions of personal and practical philosophy. Chuck had the privilege of escorting many of these individuals to David's home, and he recalls that one of the questions David inevitably asked, and relentlessly pressed, was: "What good to the world is your field of study? What good to the world?" 

As word got around about David's end-of-life "interrogations", some of his cohorts sought to avoid his invitation. The questions he was asking, apparently, were too profound , too troubling, for them in their implications; the spirit in which he was asking those questions, apparently, took them, their work and their world too seriously. Still, David kept on. One of the major conclusions he drew from these conversations in his final days was that "unless we learn to replace force with feeling," there isn't much hope for the world. Unless we learn to replace force with feeling. 

David lived to see the return of the goldfinches in the spring. When he died, his immediate family and a few close friends scattered his ashes on a certain patch of native grassland once its pasque flowers were in bloom. This had been his parting wish. Chuck was among those present for the simple ceremony. It was, he said, one of the most powerful experiences of his life--because of how David had lived, because of how he had died, and because of how, even after his death, his way of being in the world survived in those who knew and loved him best.

May we all be fully present when the pasque flowers bloom.

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