Early in July I had the good fortune to go down to the Gulf to visit a remarkable woman, Anne Rudloe. Anne lives in the small town of Panacea, Fla. She is a marine biologist who, with her husband Jack, runs the Gulf Specimen Lab, an aquarium devoted to Gulf species, and teaches at Florida State in nearby Tallahassee. Anne has also written an extraordinary book, “Butterflies on a Sea Wind: Beginning Zen,” a book about both Zen practice and the Gulf region.
I met Anne years ago when, directly after chemotherapy, she began a rigorous 90-day Zen retreat in Rhode Island and I showed up for a non-rigorous community event just after the retreat ended. Not many people would throw themselves into a physically grueling Zen retreat with essentially no break after finishing physical grueling chemo. I felt humbled in her presence.
When I visited Anne this time, it was too hot for wimpy me to do much hiking or to be out on the water (when you open the backseat of Anne’s car, the first thing you see is snorkel equipment), so we had to make do with brief visits to piney woods, barrier beaches, cypress swamps, salt marshes and a river ride on a shaded excursion boat just a few yards from the occasional alligator. Where I — and maybe you — see, say, tall skinny trees far apart with nondescript ground cover between and a few birds, Anne sees an entire inter-related system in which each thing has its place, and each thing supports each other thing. This is not a mystic vision. It is intensely practical. It is simply how things work. Looking at a forest, walking on a beach, going down a river, Anne points out a hundred small things, and how those hundred small things work together. Her deep spiritual practice and deep knowledge of the ecosystem in which she lives come together, and I found my mind once again opening under the influence of hers. Reading her book years ago, before I ever met her, had the same effect, and I encourage you to read it too — you will never think of brine shrimp or palmetto the same way again.
Anne’s cancer is back and terminal. It is progressing as inexorably as the oil is progressing along the Gulf shore. But the thing about Anne is that when you are with her you don’t think you are with a dying person. She certainly doesn’t think that way. She’s not in denial, and she has her hard times as we all do, but she understands that we are all dying. We need to understand this too. We need to truly understand our place in this universe, and live from that place. Instead, too often we live in delusion, causing havoc as we lurch through our lives, ignorant of our true relationship to the world around us, attached to the notion of forever, blind to what’s in front of us right now and to the consequences of our actions.