Tom and I went to the Catholic Church yesterday to say good-bye to Father Gene who is taking a sabbatical after forty years. He hasn’t said so, but we all think he’s not coming back. He’s a sixties priest, in the mold of Thomas Merton or Father Nouwan; a peace-loving, thoughtful man who sure knows how to spin a homily. I imagine it would be hard to fit that round world view into the current square box of the Vatican’s demands on parish priests.
On our way out, a lovely young woman I know was saying that it was hard for her to pray ever since the tsunami. I nodded, but I didn’t agree. Sometimes I do that: nod and don’t say what I really think, because I know what I really think is unacceptable. What I was thinking was, “What does praying have to do with the tsunami?”
Tom said something similar over dinner. “I don’t get people who say they blame God for natural disasters. I mean, if we all accept that we’re gong to die someday, then what’s the big deal?”
“I know,” I said, loving that we agreed. “I feel the same way. It’s not God’s fault! It’s not anybody’s fault! It just is.”
But after that, we didn’t have much to say to each other. In fact, both of us got grumpy. I went off to drown my sorrows on line, which is what I do now that I don’t drink or eat ice cream. I go on line and poke around and try to learn things. When that started to make me feel sick and disconnected, I tried to work on the new young adult book I’m writing. But I couldn’t concentrate. I kept thinking about Larry. Larry Jennings died on Christmas Day, which meant he just missed the tsunami. Larry was a music fan who happened into my life sometime in the late nineties. I first became aware of him at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival one July—I don’t remember which year. I liked the look of him: he had scraggly brown hair, very long. He had bad teeth, but he sure knew how to smile. His friend, our mutual friend, Cone Head, told me later that he was dying of cancer of the liver. I didn’t ask a lot of questions. I did take his photograph. Some people you just want to remember.
I got up from my novel and practiced my left jab, my right hook, my footwork (I’m studying boxing, but that’s the topic for a whole other blog). I went downstairs, put on the Rolling Stones, Who’s Next and Prince’s 1999 and danced like a maniac around my living room, but I couldn’t shake the angry feeling I had inside me. I went back upstairs and sat with Tom in our meditation room and we practiced Tonglen on the people who had died in Asia. Tonglen is a practice we learned from Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun. It’s an ancient Tibetan kind of meditation where you breathe in all that you would normally push away, like anger, fear, sadness, Tsunamis, death, ambivalence about God, loss, repercussions from eating too many donuts, etc. Then you breathe out all the things you would like to have for yourself, and you direct that to the people who most need it: joy, compassion, love, peace, a breeze in the desert, a view from the top of Mount Colvin. We sat like that for fifteen minutes, which is a lot for me, though Tom’s got more patience. During that time, I felt the anger boiling in my blood, roiling in my stomach. I felt a lump come up to my throat when I pictured Larry. I thought about standing on a beach, watching the ocean and having the water rise and rise until it fell over me like a curtain and took me away. I imagined saying goodbye to my child, kissing him on the top of the head and thinking I’d see him later, and then hearing about the earthquake, knowing he was lost forever.
Afterwards, Tom said, “I don’t know what I was talking about earlier. I read about a guy who lost seven of his ten children. If it were me, I’d be consumed with rage.”
I nodded. If someone were to take Tom away from me, or Katryna, or Dave or William or Amelia, or Abigail, Mark or the twins–would I ever speak to God again, even though I say I don’t believe in the kind of God who makes tsunamis happen? I don’t know. How dare I even guess at what another person would feel?
I said, “It used to be that people would tell me how sad they were about something that happened in their lives, and I’d want to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a trick to help you with that. It’s called Not Feeling.’”
I was an expert at not feeling. I’d get really hard and I could take anything. Like Superman. Like a snowman. And secretly, I’d feel sorry for all the poor sops who had to go through life feeling pain. I knew I was immune.
I don’t want to do that anymore, and anyway, I’m not sure I even can. It’s a high price to have to feel your feelings, because part of what that entails is connecting with other people. If you’re going to feel sad and angry, you probably will need to talk to some other people. As Audrey Hepburn said in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, “Quelle drag.” But I’ve lived the alternative: I’ve been a Brain With Feet, someone who races around with a tiny little body and a great big head, accomplishing things and staying above the waters of the emotions. It looks good, it’s neat and tidy, but it means the only pleasure you get to feel is at the level of Disney World or a hot fudge sundae. Nothing that lasts.
Tom and I took Cody out to the park across the street. We breathed in the oddly warm January air. We’d spent Christmas in Florida with my glorious parents, and were grateful to be back in our home state. My parents are truly glorious, but they are my parents, and spending a prolonged period of time on their turf is like being Superman and living in a large house with a tiny amount of kryptonite hidden somewhere. You feel your strength slowly leach out of you, and you begin to open drawers, searching frantically for the whereabouts of the kryptonite, though you know even if you find it you won’t be able to touch it to get rid of it. Yet another instance where I find I need the help of others. “Hey, friends: could you kindly come by and remove the kryptonite?”
Cody chased sticks and got muddy. When we circled around and came back to our house, I noticed tiny lamb’s ears growing in the garden. They think it’s spring on January 4.
In today’s Boston Globe, James Carroll writes, “In the Book of Job, the answer comes ‘from the heart of the tempest.’ And the answer is–that there is no answer. The tsunami wrack line is as much of mystery as of misery. But, as the world’s response nevertheless makes clear, we needn’t understand to care, nor find meaning in this suffering to denounce its injustice. Having the hurt ones in mind and finding ways to help them are what matter now.”
Here’s what praying has to do with the tsunami. Praying reminds us that we are connected to everyone on the planet. Praying reminds us that we are soft human bodies, and that our brains are only two percent of our body mass. Parying reminds us that we are not Superman, but one among billions of others, and that everyone has his or her own peculiar brand of kryptonite. Praying reminds us that we are only here for a short time, and we don’t know for how long. It doesn’t matter how much God loves us or how diligent we are about worshiping God; God doesn’t promise us a long life no matter how much God loves us. What God does is be with us when we are present, when we are with ourselves. God is with us when we are with God. When I stop being a Brain With Feet and start being a whole person, when I can be with my anger, my grief at losing Larry, losing people I don’t know in Asia, my fear about disasters that come out of nowhere, I can also be with my great joy at having the life I do have, these instants of awareness, the pleasure and pain in my body. One more day free from the tsunami.