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The Mustard Seed of Grief and Rebirth
Many of the articles for this Lily Pad Sutra column explore what my own and others’ fears have taught me over the last seven years of combining location independence with letting the Dharma take the lead—what I like to call lily padding. With the ending of one calendar year and the start of another, I’ve been contemplating what lily padding has taught me about most people’s ultimate fear: death . . .
Possibly my favorite Buddhist parable is that of Kisa Gotami and the mustard seed, in which the Buddha counsels a grieving mother unable to come to terms with her son’s death to visit her neighbors door-to-door and to collect a mustard seed from each household untouched by death. By the evening, her empty hands and new understanding enable the grieving mother to bury her son and become a disciple of the Buddha.
When I explain the concept of housesitting to strangers, many assume being nomadic frees me from the fears of day-to-day life and that somehow I’m constantly on holiday (or moving on) from mundane realities. I’ve also heard the same said of monastics. While it’s an understandable conclusion for a layperson to draw, in my experience I’m encountering fears more often than I ever did when staying in one place. Particularly the fear of death.
In some cases, death is what has made room for my stay; in other cases, death is the reason I move on. Sometimes I witness it first-hand, other times I’m comforting the bereaved after their loss. What follows are a few examples of my own search for mustard seeds, lily pad to lily pad.
Grief, rather than an actual vacation, is often the reason a homeowner wants to vacate their property for a time. My third lily pad was a hotel for sale for this very reason. The husband had died suddenly, and his widow felt unable to continue running their 12-bedroom country hotel or look after his beloved Labrador dog and calico cat. Her sister found me online to look after the building until the legalities of the sale could go through a few months later and the orphaned pets could be rehomed.
My friends made the inevitable jokes about Stephen King’s horror story The Shining, in which a writer becomes the caretaker of an out-of-season hotel. My own four months hotel-sitting were both more picturesque (a forest and lake to myself) and far less dramatic (the occasional joyriding teenagers). However, the realities of death and grief were ever present.
The dog (and the cat who thought it was a dog and would tag along!) hadn’t been walked in weeks, so coaxing them back into a daily exercise and feeding routine was my first priority. Our daily walks soon perked them up, and both were in Olympic condition by the time they moved to their new homes.
Then there was the husband’s best friend, who would visit weekly to tackle any major maintenance issues for the property, and wanted someone to share stories about his friend. I really enjoyed our conversations and learning about the history of the space I was occupying.
And then there was communication with the widow herself. Sometimes, she was warmth itself as she reverted to her hotel hostess role to check I had all I needed; at other times, she would forget why I was there and panic. At her most lucid, she asked for my support in arranging the memorial for her husband’s ashes to be scattered on the hotel grounds. At her most confused, she once contacted my references when she’d been drinking, convinced I had criminal intentions!
This kind of projection is more common than most people realize, especially when grief is involved. A few years later, I revisited a sit to help another grieving dog and his owners. I’d originally looked after their two dogs for a summer, and the owners and I stayed in touch after my stay.
Now, over these last seven years, I’ve cared for more than 30 pets and 100 farm animals. Inevitably, some have since died, and it is common for their owners to contact me because not everyone in their day-to-day lives appreciates that losing a pet can often be harder than losing a fellow human. This particular couple contacted me absolutely distraught several months later when the vet gave one of their dogs a terminal diagnosis, and I comforted them as best I could with cards and calls of support from afar.
When I returned to look after their surviving dog, a miniature poodle now without his big protective Labradoodle brother, it took several weeks to coax him back out into the world. While he found his paws again, sadly his owners were still caught up in the confusion of their own grief on their return. I was out exploring for the day to give them some space coming home before we’d overlap for a few days, when I received a text in the afternoon telling me to leave as soon as possible.
Confused by the message, I replied to check exactly what was being asked. Apparently, I had plans to steal their remaining dog and so they had taken him to friends for safekeeping! Could I please come pack my things and leave while they were all out that evening?
Before I even had time to digest the emotional and practical implications of their request, equanimity flowed through me that none of it had anything to do with me. I found a free bed in a backpacker hostel in the city I was visiting for the day, and took the train back to house to pack my backpack and clean the house as lovingly as I would after any stay. The Dharma even led me to bake a cake.
My best friend, initially furious on my behalf, laughed herself silly when I told her about the cake: “Only you would kill them with kindness after all they just put you through. I hope you poisoned it!” I grinned and explained that, while I’d refrained from revenge, the symbolic use of bananas and nuts would probably go unnoticed.
In the Bible, Jesus also tells a parable about a mustard seed. Interestingly, his isn’t about grief like the Buddha’s but about growing faith: that the Kingdom of Heaven can germinate from something as small as a mustard seed. Hybridizing these Buddhist and Christian symbols reminds me of a saying I recently overheard about how sometimes when we think life is burying us, it may in fact be planting us. On that note, I’ll wish readers the very best for 2018 and leave you with three stories about brushes with death while lily padding that birthed something new . . . and how sometimes my so-called criminal projections do catch up with me!
One widow I sat for while her husband was still alive (their last holiday together) asked me back the following year to support her first solo holiday away from the house they had shared for more than 40 years of married life. We overlapped by several days before she left, and I ended up helping plant primroses on his grave and cooking for a garden party to thank all the neighbors who’d supported her grieving. Another homeowner whose cat died two years earlier decided that, rather than welcome a new one into her home, she would rather volunteer at a no-kill shelter for homeless pets in need of rehousing. And yet another homeowner who lost her beloved dog has turned to housesitting herself.
I love murder-mystery parties, in which guests are given roles to play and clues throughout an evening to try to solve a fictional murder. I discovered a neighbor at one sit who loved them as well, so we put our heads together and hosted a circus-themed murder-mystery party for his friends, who’d known one another some three decades. Casting himself as the Ring Master, he cast (or rather typecast?) me as the Escape Artist’s Assistant, Wanda Lust. We had a hilarious evening, and many guests later commented on how refreshing it was to assume a new identity with people they already knew so well.
When I returned to that particular housesit a few months later, the neighbors touchingly organized another “murder” that the homeowner I was sitting for could attend as well this time. I joked that I wasn’t sure whether to be worried or flattered that my re-appearance inspired crime, and that perhaps—like Jessica Fletcher’s knack for always being in the right place at the right time in the TV series Murder, She Wrote—I was turning into the star of my own personal version of Murder, She Sat?
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