—“I’m gonna wash my Self right outta my hair . . .”
Why can’t I have just a normal life? I want the sweet little house with the hanging petunias. I want to scrub the loo and launder the sheets and load the dishwasher properly. I want to say things like, “Gotta check with the hubby,” when making plans, and, “We are thinking of you,” when a friend is in need. I want to dangle a glass of lemonade for the sweetie when she comes in from the yard, satisfied by the smell of freshly cut grass. I want a garage to store holiday crap—even though I hate holiday crap—but maybe that’s because I’ve never shared holidays with a family of my own.
Despite all these longings, I’ve never been too taken with Betty Crocker and the domestic bliss-tones. The melody is familiar enough; I come from a rather conventional Protestant family and have long known—at almost forty and still single—that I don’t quite fit the Jell-O mold. But now for the first time, I know what it feels like to want to be a wife. A wife! It’s bizarre. And beautiful. I met someone who flipped my heart upside down—a view so fresh, I can finally see a world in which I am not the most important person in it. It’s a revelation! A game-changer! A cruel joke. Why? Because God crept up to my ear and whispered, “You want to be her wife, huh? Awe, that’s too bad . . . ’cause she’s already got one!”
We all know the painful equation here: I want something I don’t have. I long to hold close what is out of reach. Plainly, my heart is broken. Isn’t this the classic cause of suffering—to resist what is before us? To wish for things to be different than they are? Sigh. I’m just another grasping fool with sticky cotton-candy hands, lost in the never-ending roller-coaster queue at Samsara Land.
And let’s face it, railing against reality isn’t pretty. Take the other morning, when heartache had me gutted and flailing in my enormous porcelain tub. Sobbing uncontrollably, I sounded like some crazed amphibious creature, hurt and gurgling, limbs contorting and splashing. I circled in the water, back and forth—fetal position, hands and knees, fetal position, hands and knees. On all fours, I stuck my tongue out in “lion’s breath”, moaning and gagging, sputtering phlegm while trying to expel what was eating me up from inside. Eventually my stomach muscles locked, along with my breath—a sign that the dramatics were over and the numbing had begun. There was almost no inhale, no exhale, just a solid body of rock and a stubborn heart trying not to become stone.
My contracted body told me where I was. I’d reached the abyss—that shared reservoir of deep, human suffering. This realm of misery accepts all travelers, no matter which road they’ve taken. Is this the place where Sylvia turned on the stove, where Virginia finally walked into the water, her pockets laden with stones? I didn’t linger long enough to find out. Thankfully I have a twenty-year meditation practice to rely on; thankfully I was born with an angel in my pocket; thankfully my family of faith is bedrock. I know I will rise from this tub.
But had it really come to this? Surely my lament for the fuzz on a woman’s cheek, for her ancient eyes and world-wide smile, was not the only cause for such a dramatic aquatic episode. The truth is, I was having a religious experience. You laugh, but it’s true! Profound pain cracks us open in ways that regular life simply cannot. And I was in extreme spiritual pain! No need to bother you with the details of how I got there that morning—I’d made just a few classic, disastrous missteps involving clingy sent text messages and flagellant Facebook trolling. (Yes, we’re all cringing.) The long and the short of it is craving. I went fishing for cred, bobbing for apples, jonesing for a little juice. I wanted reassurance; I didn’t get it. And it freaked me out.
What can I say? I’m human. I’m hard-wired for desire. The shiny object appears and my hand reaches out. Fingers paw the air and I purr, “I want that. I love that. I need that.” Swept away, the desire I carry starts to carry me. I spin adrift, my mind sailing blindly into darker and stormier oceans of thought. To be this unmoored is terrifying. But it can’t last. The sea will eventually simmer and land me hard upon the shore. Thump. Oof. Spitting bits of sand, I look about and notice I’ve arrived somewhere new. Unfamiliar, yes, but fresh. There’s nothing like getting knocked on your heinie to offer up true spiritual growth.
So, with my face pressed against the cold rim of the tub, I managed a few real breaths and did a little shaking to wake up my body. I planted my rump on the bottom of the tub and tried to literally feel that I was on the earth. I noticed heat flushing my face and snot running out of my nose. (Here’s to Thirty-Two Parts of the Body practice!) And I just tried to soften my heart. I know that sounds vague—but how else to say it? I tried to relax my muscles, loosen my skin and open. Open to what was coming through, to the pain, to “what is.” And then I just breathed.
A few weeks later I visit my Aunt Barbara in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She’d suffered a massive stroke in March and had been mere breaths away from death. Thanks to a “miracle drug,” along with the loving care of family and friends, her life was not only spared but has been returned in almost its entirety. Surprisingly, I’ve never seen Barbara look more radiant. As she floats past the grand piano toward the sliding glass door to greet their beloved Lhasa apso, Yeti, I jest, “What were those angels serving up in heaven’s waiting station, Barbara, because it seems to have done you right!” She simply beams back, “Well, isn’t it just the funniest thing?” She is so relaxed, and appears to delight in every little detail—ice cream sundaes, blooming begonias, Forever stamps. She carries the subtle twinkle of someone who has grazed the other side and returned for a bonus round.
During lunch, Barbara tells me all about her adventures in the hospital and her recovery since. At the end of our conversation, I throw out the almost rhetorical question, “Well, what is the meaning of life, then?” Conceptually, her response is no news flash for me. But on this day, over iced green tea and fuji-apple salad, her words arrive on a shaft of sunlight. Without missing a beat she says, “It’s loving whatever God has handed you—even the parts that aren’t easy.” Shazam! She just nailed an essential truth from nearly every religious tradition on the planet! Then she reaches toward the center of the table and adds, “Is anyone going to eat this last brownie?”
Loving whatever God has handed you. Huh. Isn’t this precisely what I’d been aiming for at the end of the bathtub fiasco? I’d been able to let the pain in, to ride it out, to follow it, even, into a kind of stillness. But I hadn’t actually loved it. I hadn’t looked upon it with welcome or extended any part of myself toward it. I made no room for anything new—all I could do was weather the barrage, a mess still very much mingled with my own wanting. But Barbara brought home the lesson hidden in the bathwater: loving is about turning over, about letting go and giving away. It’s about emptying out my own desires and wants for the sake of the other. I daresay, for the sake of all.
In truth, I need to get out of my own way, to clear out my stuck junk. By junk, I mean all the ideas of who I am and what I deserve, the plans for what’s going to happen next, the schemes for getting the goods and the fantasies of how life should be. Am I overridden with clutter? Absolutely! Piling up by my altar is a perpetual garage sale. The Dharma helps me find and tag the items; Christ helps me lay them out and give them away.
Loving whatever God has handed you. This is the teaching of the Buddha, cloaked in the language of my Presbyterian childhood. I’ve discovered the Christian term kenosis, from the Greek verb kenosein, meaning “to let go” or “to empty one’s self.” Kenosis is the emptying of one’s own will and becoming entirely receptive to the Divine Will of God. It is active. It moves from the inside out—milk poured from the pitcher, honey from the pot. I’m reminded of Buddhism’s shunyata, or emptiness, that place of no-place from which all things arise and to which they return. Kenosis and shunyata. Both are empty of self, both embody that bathwater maxim: loving is about turning over, about letting go and giving away. And both connect me to the ceaseless flow between form and void, between everything and nothing. In this flow, all things are possible. The rise and fall are eternal. “The only constant is change.” To me, it doesn’t matter how you name this endless cycle of creation and destruction. The faces of God are numberless; I vow to praise them all.
Loving whatever God has handed you. I’ll admit it—I still often long for the wife, the hanging baskets and the holiday crap. But here is what I’ve actually been given: I have a room in a house in the Berkeley Hills, shared with a precious cat named Phoebe, and a dreamy blue VW bug in the drive, with sap encrusted on her hood. I have a family of origin that has loved me every single day of my life, and a whole tribe of friends who lift me up and inspire me with their own adventures. I have thirteen years of Divinity School and hospice work behind me, and an amazing line of mentors who have modeled enduring passion for one’s vocation. I have an enormous redwood tree outside my window, which has become my best friend, and twelve shelves of books to keep me company at all hours. I’ve got my health, my faculties and a fairly secure “groovy aunt” status. Need I want more? Every day I am infinitely blessed.