Rajab has gone out and Sha’ban has entered; The soul has quit the body, the Beloved has entered.
The breath of ignorance and the breath of heedlessness have gone forth; the breath of love and the breath of forgiveness have entered.
Mystical Poems of Rumi, trans AJ. Arberry
The lungs are a remarkable pair of organs. Flicking through my old anatomy books, I’m reminded of their sponginess and of a springiness that surprises you when you poke your fingers through them. In university teaching rooms held in a windowless basement, I remember as a young student feeling nothing but a deep fascination for the remains of people who had donated their bodies for the benefits of science. It’s not hard to imagine a tree turned on its head with its branches of tiny blood vessels turned downwards hidden in each person’s chest, a silent communion of air kissed between man and nature. In a natural passing, the final in-breath completes the cycle of creation that according to the Sufis began with the breath of compassion.
Ancient wisdom across cultures speak of the tendency of grief and shock to lodge themselves in a person’s airways and make it hard to breathe. With its ears turned to the lobes on the left, the heart hears the whimpers of the lung and lends a hand by doubling its efforts. One organ helping out another. Like trees that divert nutrients and water to a weaker tree through underground fungal networks. Such was the case of my Dutch friend Corina. While still curled in her mother’s womb, her grandfather passed away before she was born, marking her entry into this world with a special case of heart and lungs. We met three decades later at a writers retreat. I had abandoned my career and was back living with friends in a Buddhist centre organising retreats for meditators, all the while pretending to my family I was still living in Paris and working as a dentist. The benefits of living abroad act as an excellent subterfuge in creating an illusory life.
I was lost, confused and directionless other than knowing I wanted to write a book. She came to the retreat as a winning entrant to a writing competition. I huffed and puffed my way through the mandatory morning yoga sessions, always finding an excuse to miss them if I could, while she mildly complained of some fatigue but kept up anyway. Every afternoon we would walk around the grounds set in the heart of the French countryside, finding writing inspiration with our backs to the trees that supported us. She carried her notebook and pen in a crossover canvas bag with rainbow colours and a motif of the Dutch nations favourite mode of transport, the humble bicycle. It was only at the end of the week that she decided to conceal her innermost truths over an intimate share all in a post-retreat lunch. I confided all to her that I couldn’t to my closest friends and family. She opened her heart to me. She was waiting for a lung transplant but it was a risky affair. We became inseparable from that point on, keeping our pact to remain truthful even when it was painful. We kept up visits in each other’s countries over the years and created a mutual life as housesitting writers. We traded care of pets for homes centred around areas in the UK that she considered sacred. We wrote our blogs and mapped out our epic masterpieces on the dining tables of strangers, turning their homes into our own and raiding their fridges. When we weren’t writing we moaned about being writers who didn’t write and just helped ourselves to more cake.
Restricted to travelling by car and ferry, her four wheels became her third lung that carried her distances that until then she had only dreamed of. Top of the list was Scotland where she could lose herself to the might of nature, her natural Celtic spirit seamlessly blending into the lochs and highlands. She taught me to honour the changing of the seasons in the festivals she celebrated and her admixtures of plant and conventional medicine. While she followed her grandmother’s herbal ways, I learned to slow down and step in line with her, our shared practice of nazar-bar-kadam, watching the step. We would often pause in the middle of the street when she got breathless, habituated by then to the concerned looks of pedestrians unable to see her invisible disability aside from an occasional blue glow around her lips.
For years, our lives crisscrossed on like this but then at some point we both realised our housesitting days were over. I got tired of moving every two weeks and went back home and reconciled with my family who by sheer exhaustion have finally forgiven me for being the failure they perceive me to be. And she went back home to the small fishing village near Rotterdam where her ancestors have lived for generations, carrying a surname that translates to ‘lobster‘ in Dutch, a name that always led her back to the sea. But she was finding it harder to cross the wide blue expanse that divided us. She began to carry oxygen in public to lighten the load on her heart. Her vulnerability cracked open and she allowed her disability to become visible with the plastic tubes sitting on top of her lip like a nose clip. It also invited an authentic love that crossed the ultimate wish in her bucket list, a partner who loved her for she was.
We kept planning our next housesit together anyway. Even when her messages over a two week period were becoming increasingly worrying. Her legs were swollen as wide as an elephant. She couldn’t walk past the sofa. Her partner had to bathe and dress her. Her intuition told her to stay at home and avoid a deadly virus spreading in hospitals and streets. By the end of the week, I put gentle pressure on her to reconsider. It was the weekend she said, I’ll go Monday. Come Saturday, it was her 37th birthday. I sent her a picture of Little Miss Stubborn. She promised to go see her doctor. Never at any point did either of us dare to pick up the phone. Our statutory two-hour conversations were halted to a fearful silence. It was as if our souls had conspired to not interfere with her free will and give her space to decide her fate for herself. When I did call it was too late. When Monday morning arrived the doctors advised her to say goodbye to her inner circle. She sent me a message telling me that she loved me. She couldn’t talk because she couldn’t breathe, but she was still hopeful. Her body disagreed and said no. It’s deceptively easy to maintain friendships through long distances but painfully difficult to lose them when you’re not within reaching distance. Within days Europe went into lockdown and the world as we knew it ended. A week later, the Earth kept turning and transitioned into spring. The beauty of her swift passing with the least time spent in hospital still amazes me. Like a lobster that expands beyond the limits of its body and then hides behind a rock to shake off its shell, she shook off her outer casing and left this land to become a drop in the ocean and merge with the sea that she loved so much.
Only in solitude can you discover a sense of your own beauty. The Divine Artist sent no-one here without the depth and light of divine beauty.
This beauty is frequently concealed behind the dull facade of routine. Only in your solitude will you come upon your own beauty. In Connemara, where there are a lot of fishing villages, there is a phrase which says: ‘is fanach an ait a gheobfa gliomach,’ i.e it is in the unexpected or neglected place that you will find the lobster. In the neglected crevices and corners of your evaded solitude, you will find the treasure you always evaded.
Anam Cara, Celtic Wisdom.
And now the pressure’s on me. She died with her book still in her. So now I write for her too. The book I began four years ago is still in me but now it demands to be birthed in the face of protests by my ego telling me I’m not ready or polished enough. But then the voice of Corina overrides that of all others and encourages me to keep writing anyway. For years I’ve been reading and researching the shadows of the world, coming up for air every once in a while when the darkness got too much. It helped put into context my own personal struggles in finding my place in a world where as Krishnamurti once said, “It is no measure of health to fit into a sick society.” Patterns emerged in a race by different creeds and cultures all competing to plunder resources in as quick as time possible and the implications for us all forecasted by voices hushed to the sidelines. I often felt demoralised and overwhelmed watching the world sleepwalking their way through life, ignorant of the truths becoming apparent around me. I found solace in ritual prayer and kept committed on the path that was being paved for me, as I remind myself that prayers are often answered in the most unexpected ways and always for the highest and best good for all. What is good for one must be good for all. All plant life. All animals. Not just men in suits, pitting one group against another. The cure to destruction is creation, and all creation begins in the realms of imagination. The shared vision of so many is starting to gather momentum as I sense an undercurrent of excitement for the blessings coming in a post-COVID world. Of a mass awakening rooted in the wisdom of trees and the mysterious workings of the human lungs. Perhaps it will open the doors of empathy for those whose countries are being destroyed by the waste produced by industrialised nations in an unfair exchange.
As the world presses the pause button on an oil-based economy and given a chance to breathe again, I say another prayer for the lungs of the Earth, the Amazon rainforest and those further in the East, in the hope that nature can forgive mankind for all the abuses it has had to endure. Tonight, on this full moon eve, millions in their homes will be praying in a night dedicated to forgiveness before fasting tomorrow morning until dusk. Some believe it’s the night when a celestial tree contained in the heavens will shed leaves containing the names of all those fated to leave this world in the coming year. It’s a true test in unconditional love to keep the airways of communication and emotion open in the absence of form and body as a testament to the immortality of the soul.
“If I should die I bid you carry me To where my love might lie There let me be And if she would give my cold lips just one kiss Believe me, I would live again by this.”
Trans. AJ Arberry.
To God we belong, to God we return. Inshallah I hear her say, as she often would. Ameen I reply back. In memory of my writing partner Corina Kreeft, I have added a short excerpt of one of her final articles published. With love.
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