Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Sands and Hourglasses

OK, so I finally power watched the new season of House of Cards. Some call that binge watching--when you don't leave the couch until all 13 episodes have been consumed. But I prefer to classify it as an exercise of endurance. It takes real strength to ignore the dishes stacked in the sink with every fork you own buried somewhere under that mess. It's not easy to ignore the loud ding of the dryer when it begs you to remove your clothes before those sweaters become irreversibly wrinkled. Thanks to my dedication and years of training, I made it through Season 3 in one weekend.

There was one tiny thread of a story line that caused a flood of memories for me. Don't worry, there are no spoilers in this post. (But what the hell are you waiting for? Watch the damn show!)

One episode featured a group of Tibetan monks creating a sand mandela in the halls of the White House.

If you haven't seen one of these masterpieces up close, you should most certainly put it on your bucket list. Watching the monks create this magnificent display of colorful sand quite literally a few grains at a time is really something to see. Witnessing the process draws you in with a kind of hypnotic calm.

This Tibetan art is called dul-tson-kyil-khor and it takes these monks weeks of bending over a table to fill in the geometric shapes and religious symbols. Each monk holds a metal funnel called a chak-pur in one hand and a metal rod in the other. He runs the rod down the funnel, which causes the sand to flow out like ink.

But here is the most amazing part of the creation of a mandela. Shortly after the monks complete their masterpiece, they destroy it. They carefully sweep together the sand, mixing the colors into indistinguishable mounds. They collect the sand and take it to a river, where they release it back into the world.

Because the monks know this. They embrace this. Nothing in life is permanent. Everything is transitory. And the more that we accept that, the more at peace we can become.

When I saw that mandela being created in House of Cards, I had such a flood of memories. I once had a very close encounter with this intricate sand art.

When I was a senior in college, back in the Grunge Age, I got an amazing internship with the public relations office of the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office. It was filled with experiences like nothing in my life would ever match. I saw my first dead person. I was held out the side of the Snowbird Tram by some members of the SWAT team so I could take photos of them doing their free rappelling drills. I was working there when they lost an officer in the line. And I was running information between the command center and the press when Lloyd Prescott happened.

In 1994, the Sheriff's Office was located in a building adjacent to the Salt Lake City Library.  Lloyd Prescott was off duty that day, only in the office to catch up on some clerical work. Someone ran into the Sheriff's Office frantically yelling that a man was in the library with a gun and a bomb and was taking hostages. Then Officer Prescott did something quite amazing. He ran into the library, in his plain clothes that hid his service weapon, and joined the group of hostages without the man waiving a gun taking notice.

Officer Prescott waited with the group of terrified hostages for more than 5 hours. He was afraid to take a shot on the chance that the dead man's switch being held by the gunman was really connected to a bomb. As Hour 6 approached and the gunman told the hostages to draw straws to see who would be shot first, Officer Prescott decided to risk the bomb detonating because he saw that there was a thick wooden table between the bomb and the hostages. He shouted to the hostages to drop to the floor as he pulled his gun and shot the man who was--in one way or another--changing all of our lives. If you are curious, here are more details of the incident.

As the dust of this event was settling, I was tasked with fielding the press inquiries, which included the LA Times, Good Morning America, and Newsweek.

But the thing I remember most about those couple days is the mandela. You see, in the library when this hostage crisis began, there was a group of Tibetan monks meditatively vibrating their chak-pur to fill in the intricate design they had laid out on a table. None of the monks were taken hostage. But they all had to flee the building.

If the story had a different ending, maybe the monks wouldn't have returned to finish and then dismantle their mandela. But it didn't end differently. And only hours after the SWAT team had cleared the building and allowed people to re-enter the library, the monks went back to work on their mandela.

I was lucky enough to observe how those monks--after being interrupted by a frightening, life-threatening situation--returned to their art. All the while reaffirming that all life is transitory. I think everyone involved that day came a bit closer to learning that for ourselves.

It was such a gift.

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