By Lavinia Plonka
“Live in the present in order to repair the past and prepare for the future.” — G.I Gurdjieff
There’s a story in the beginning of Sogyal Rinpoche’s marvelous book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. A man spends his entire life scrimping and saving pennies, denying himself personal comfort, living like a miserable miser, storing up his earnings in order to have enough money to retire someday and live in comfort. He stores all his money in a sack that he keeps suspended from the ceiling above his bed with a rope and a pulley. He would lower the sack, put in more coins, the reel it back up again out of the view and reach of potential thieves. Each night, he lay on his bed, staring at the sack in pleasure, imagining all the wonderful things he was going to do with that money once he had enough. The time finally came; he decided that the next day was his moment of freedom. He once again lay in bed, staring at his sack of gold, filled with the pleasure of his future delight. That night, a rat started chewing on the rope. It gnawed away until the frayed rope gave way. The bag came crashing down onto the bed, crushing and killing the miser.
Lately friends and I have been having conversations about silly things from childhood that influenced our worldview. I can trace some of my anxieties and part of my transformation to a Disney Silly Symphony cartoon called “The Grasshopper and The Ants.”
In the cartoon, the grasshopper plays his fiddle, sings and dances while the ants stock up for the winter. He exhorts them to join him in music and dance, but the Queen Ant tells him that come winter, he’ll sing a different tune. Indeed as winter descends, we see the miserable grasshopper freezing and starving to death. I was terrified for him, and felt that there was nothing more important than saving money to prepare myself for lean times.
However, my parents never saved any money. In fact, one of my Dad’s mantras was “Eat, drink and be merry today, because tomorrow they’ll come and take it away.” I didn’t know at the time, because my parents never spoke of it, what it meant to lose everything. My father had a house and owned a department store, one of the first of its kind in Poland. In 1939, soldiers showed up at his house and his store and announced that “in the name of the Reich” both the house and store now belonged to a repatriated German family named Schultz. In five seconds, my father was homeless and broke. My mother’s family was captured and force-marched to Germany where they spent the rest of the war as slaves in a labor camp. So “live for today” was my father’s golden rule.
Of course this meant that there was no money for my college education. There was no running back to Mom and Dad for a handout. It was also a ticket to freedom. I was not beholden to them in any way once I left for college. But I still scrimped and saved, not wanting to end up like the poor grasshopper.
Was it destiny or karma that led me to fall in love with a grasshopper? Living with my husband Ron was like living with my Dad. Any money immediately went towards “today” – new equipment, photo supplies, art supplies. When I complained that we weren’t investing in our future, he shrugged and said, “My greatest investment is myself!” Oh Lord.
I told him about the grasshopper and the ants. I often kid around and say that Ron has a terrible memory, or he reconstructs events to suit his worldview (don’t we all?). So when he begged to differ on the grasshopper’s fate, I was irate. We found the cartoon somewhere, and I triumphantly hit play. Everything was as I remembered it … up to the point when the grasshopper knocks on the ants’ door. Instead of turning him out, they bring him in, warm him, feed him. The Queen Ant admonishes him to realize that everyone must work. And that in his case that meant she wanted him to play and sing for them. The very thing he loved to do became his salvation.
Between my father’s exhortation to enjoy life while you can, and then my husband’s belief that we should live in the moment (did I marry my father? Oh no! This is where the similarities end). I’ve realized that I may never retire, but I can still enjoy all the things I want in life: travel, good friends, good food. I have changed from ant to grasshopper, doing what I love for the joy of others as well as myself.
It’s a risk. But so is every moment. One day, while I was living in Manhattan, I was late for a dance class. The subway didn’t arrive on time, the crowds interfered with my progress. I was dashing in and out of pedestrian traffic, cursing every interference. Up ahead there was a construction site. A crane was lifting an I-beam high into the air. As I was trying to push my way through the crowd, the cable snapped and the I-beam plummeted to the ground. It struck the man directly in front of me, killing him instantly. I froze. If I had been one fraction of a second earlier on my trip, it would have been me. All this man’s investments, his worries, his plans were for nought. At the time, I thanked God, the Universe, and whatever video game operator who controls my destiny for delaying the subway. Only later did I also recognize the lesson. You can die at any moment, in the strangest of ways. Don’t wait for the bag of money to land on your head. Live now. Do what you love and the rest of the world will thank you.
Lavinia joyfully helps others realize their dreams via The Feldenkrais Method. www.laviniaplonka.com