“Last Night the Rain Spoke to Me” by Mary Oliver
Last night the rain spoke to me slowly, saying, what joy to come falling out of the brisk cloud, to be happy again in a new way on the earth!…
Above my desk is a list of my goals. They are:
1. Write great, classic songs that will endure beyond my death
2. Have a great family which I sustain and which sustains me
3. Be a part of a vital, creative community
4. Meet Paul McCartney
5. Become enlightened.
To wit, I do a number of things every day to advance my goals: I write. I make sure to at least say hi to my fiancé, Tom, with whom I live; I call my sisters and my parents, play with my nieces and nephews. I get out of the house, answer emails, talk on the phone with old friends, try to make new ones. The Paul McCartney thing, I admit, I’m not doing that much towards advancing, but I will have you know that at one point, I asked our record company to send him our CD to see if he wanted to produce us. He declined, but I’m pretty sure that was only because he was dealing with slightly more urgent matters, like the death of his wife.
As for becoming enlightened, it’s not going so well. I’m a dutiful little Bodhisatva in training. I meditate daily—well, I suppose that continues to be debatable, as I have the world’s most blabbering monkey mind. But I do assume the position–after twenty years, my legs twist into a marvelous lotus, almost without any help from my hands. I go to a tiny congregational church in the hill town of Cummington where the pastor, a shepherd and a poet, has never set foot in divinity school.
And I read spiritual books like some people eat potato chips. I can’t get enough, Whoever is the guru du jour, you can bet I’m reading him or her. And for the span of time that I’m reading this guru, I see the world completely through his/her eyes. Byron Katie? Everything is “your story, sweetheart!” Eckhardt Tolle? “Be still. Listen…….to ze ………spaces……..as much …….ass…..ze verds. “
I read about how to be in the present moment and how to be so deeply committed to a partner that the idea that you are two separate beings will never thereafter enter your mind. Of course, I am reading so fanatically, that when Tom leans over to kiss me and tell me about his day, I nod and go, “Uh huh,” without looking up from my newest book, “How To Be Completely Present For The One You Love.”
My biggest problem with some of these gurus is they’re not that funny. They can’t be—because to be really funny, you have to make fun of yourself, at least a little. To be funny you have to be human and fallible. But here’s where the guru is stuck in a bind. If she makes fun of herself, she is pointing out that she is sliding, perhaps, from that rarified spot on top of the mountain. She is admitting that even though she’s enlightened, she’s not always so. And if she is selling that product: My Brand Of Enlightenment (let’s call is “EnlightenMee” just for kicks) which promises freedom from ego-ic thoughts and emotions, the ability to let Whatever Is Be So, but has to add this disclaimer: “Usually works, but sometimes I hurl my computer on the floor when AOL Crashes and I lose an important email–” well, you can see how this might undermine her credibility just a little.
Oftentimes, the guru’s story goes like this: Down and Out man/woman is either depressed or addicted or just plain mean as hell. Down and Out person goes to bed gnashing his/her teeth in despair, wondering what is the point of even waking up the next morning. Then, Down and Outer has a huge epiphany complete with thunder and lightening, Beethovenesque crescendos and a severe ringing in the ear. During this epiphany, Down and Outer realizes that our thoughts are our only problem, that we are all One, that God is a Great Light which loves us all, and that we are each, in fact, God.
That’s all fine. I have no problem with that. My problem comes with what happens next. Former Down and Outer stands up from the epiphany, shakes him or herself off, spends a few years sitting on a park bench just smiling benevolently at passers by, or, alternatively at a kitchen sink washing dishes (and by that I mean, really washing dishes. Dong nothing but washing dishes but being so in the NOW with the dishes that the dishes become part of God, part of nature, part of the down and outer, and no one notices dishpan hands or needs Palmolive…) Anyway, Post Epiphanal Down and Outer emerges some years after the epiphany on the self help circuit, pawning a book with his or her face smiling smugly and deeply, and the book has words like “groundbreaking” and “revolutionary” on the cover. Soon, the guru is being featured in People Magazine, Oprah and the Today Show. Here Post Epiphanal Down and Outer smiles calmly and the interviewer actually wonders, “Has this person had a stroke?” But instead merely asks, “Don’t you ever worry about anything?”
“No,” is the answer, given with calm assurance but no humor. “Why should I worry? The universe provides for my every need. I have but to be with whatever is and know that this is the way it should be.”
I can’t argue with this. And I know my contrariness, if it were to be analyzed by one of these gurus, comes from my ego resisting the notion that it is not a singular, unique self. I know that these gurus would say I am addicted to my thinking, I am addicted to my emotions and I am addicted to my sense of self. And I would have to admit this is true.
But, guru, what about grief? Aren’t we supposed to grieve our losses? In the last few years, if I have learned one lesson, it’s been that. In the actual grief, in the very center of that feeling of loss and nothingness, I have found the sweetness. I have found the comforting presence of Other, of Being, of God or whatever you want to call that feeling that we are, that I am, not alone. And I don’t believe I would have found it without falling all the way to the bottom. When you’re on the ground there is nowhere to fall.
My sister has a polyp on her vocal chord. Its timing is extraordinarily bad, materializing right at this moment, at what was supposed to be the beginning of the resumption of our music career after a six month maternity leave. We are supposed to go back out on the road supporting a novel, a book based on one of my songs. We recorded a soundtrack to go with the book, and the soundtrack came out over a year ago. We had a whole plan to tour behind the CD and the book, to bring our message of freedom and self-fulfillment to young women everywhere, to liberate all with the power of the word and the guitar. Now, we don’t know when she’ll be able to sing again.
When I sing with my sister, I have a physical reaction. My throat aches with pleasure when my voice joins hers. It’s the easiest thing I do, and that for which I get the most credit. Sometimes I resent this; it reminds me of what my friend Priscilla said about her red hair. “People are always admiring my red hair,” says Priscilla. “But I do nothing to have red hair. Why can’t they admire my abs or my sense of style? Those things I’m responsible for.”
I want people to admire me for those things I sweat and slave over. Why can’t people admire my songs? That’s what I want. I want people to admire my songs, to love my songs, to sing them without me present (especially if they are Bette Midler or Garth Brooks and want to put them on an album. The royalties for that would surely pay for my transatlantic flight to London where I could stalk Paul McCartney. Or at least pay for my dream kitchen.)
I climb to the top of the mountain where the guru sits, all in white, naturally. This guru is a blond Germanic woman with one of those odd European voices—a voice that speaks English with so little trace of an accent you kind of get the creeps, as I used to when I watched Soviet Spy Joe Adamov being interviewed on the Today Show in the 70’s.
“Ah,” says the guru. “Turn it around. Why can’t you change your thinking? Why can’t you put ‘Sing with my sister’ at the top of your Goals list? Then you will have already achieved your goal.”
That’s the other problem with these gurus. They leave you no wiggle room when they prove you wrong, and you end up slinking away like a shamed dog. But as I start to slink, the guru says, “Wait. You’re Nerissa Nields, right?”
I am surprised. I really didn’t think the guru liked folk music. But I’ve learned over the years that the strangest people have heard of me, and it’s never the ones I expect. I’ve been so often embarrassed at parties when I introduce myself as a folk singer and the stranger I’m talking to says, “Really? I love folk music! What’s the name of your band?”
When I tell her, she wrinkles her face, and begins to look frighteningly apologetic, as if she’s about to break my heart.
“God!” she’ll say. “I’m really sorry. I know EVERY band that’s up and coming, especially folk bands. But I’ve never heard of you!”
But then there are random people at airports all over the country who recognize me on sight. There are corporate types from my new career as a life coach who say they heard one of my songs on the radio and ordered all our CDs online. You never know where the little seed takes root.
Slowly I turn and face the guru. “Yes,” I say warily.
The guru smiles. “You’ve created quite a fix for yourself, sister,” she says.
“What do you mean?” This guru, while perfect looking at first, I now notice, has love handles and crows feet and is more the beautiful for them.
“Well,” she says. “You believe you’ve made a living off your ego. How are you going to shed it now?”
“Plastic surgery?” I joke. Predictably, she is not amused.
“Service,” I say, guessing. That seems to be the right answer to all spiritual questions in the same way that “performance” is the right answer for corporate life coaches.
The guru looks at me as though she knows I know better.
“I know!” I say. “Be in the NOW!”
Now she’s angry. “Well, of course, be in the now.” And she turns her back on me! I’m dismissed! I can’t believe I climbed all the way up here for this!
“Wait a second,” I say. “I have a question!”
She sighs and turns back.
“Now that you’re all enlightened and everything, I want to know, do you ever get irritated?”
Aha! I’ve trapped her, Since it’s pretty obvious that she’s irritated at this very moment. This present moment. This now.
She whirls around. “You’re goddamned right I do! When I’m angry, I’m angry! And you are pissing me off! Go down the mountain and climb up again tomorrow.”
This is too much. I’ve had a really hard week. I miss my sister. I am angry that she has to suffer. I want to sing with her, and I’m trying to find a way out of my stupid suffering and I’m trying to be brave and honest and ask the right questions, and I really don’t fancy climbing a mountain this tall twice in two days. I do the thing I swore I wouldn’t do in front of the guru: I sit down on a rock and cry.
The rock is pink and grey like a lung. I weep kind of softly and as I weep, I feel a little better. I’ve been singing with my sister, writing songs, trying to get more people to recognize me in airports, for my whole adult life. I’m tired of things changing without my permission.
The guru has come over and is sitting next to me. I don’t look at her. It sounds like she might be chewing gum, which shocks me, just a tad.
“So why Paul McCartney? Why not Bob Dylan?” she says finally. “Bob Dylan’s a much better songwriter.”
“I know,” I say, wiping my nose on my sleeve. “But Bob Dylan’s mean. He hates fans. If he met me, he’d be mean to me and ignore me. Paul McCartney on the other hand, loves to talk to fans. He goes out of his way to talk to fans.”
“So which goal is easier to attain? Meeting Paul McCartney or meeting Bob Dylan?”
“Huh?” I say, fearing I’m about to be tricked again. “Meeting Paul. I mean, if I happened to be in London. I’ve heard he walks the same way to his office everyday, always hoping to be stopped by fans who want to ask him Beatles minutia like what kind of reverb did he use on the drums at the end of ‘Hello Goodbye. ‘ They say if he doesn’t get recognized he practically bumps into people. He really likes to talk.”
“So, is it fair to say that you like doing things the easy way?”
I nod vigorously. “Of course! I don’t want to have to bang my head against the wall! Who does?”
“Um,” she says, “You do. Sometimes. You struggle against the flow of the river. You said you want credit for the things you work so hard at, the things you strive to accomplish. You don’t want credit for the easy things like being able to harmonize with your sister. But don’t you get it? The easy thing is a gift. Paul McCartney’s accessibility to his fans is a gift. Your harmonizing with your sister is a gift. Why not go with the flow? The river’s heading south, sister, and instead of going along with it, you suddenly decide to swim north.”
My blood boils. This woman is an unfeeling jerk!
“It’s good to go against the flow sometimes! It keeps you exercising! It makes you strong! It’s good to resist! If we all went with the flow, we’d be allowing atrocities to take place! What if Gandhi went with the flow? What if Martin Luther King went with the flow?”
She is smiling at me in the most annoying way. “They did. How do you know that the Flow wasn’t moving towards freedom and liberation and they weren’t just riding the wave?”
“Because they got shot!” I shout. The wind is picking up a little and I see the trees on the peak across the range from us blow sideways. Yet somehow, not a hair on this woman’s head moves.
“And what’s so bad about that?”
“They DIED!!” I scream. “What is wrong with you?”
“And dying is bad?”
I get up. I hate this woman. “My sister can’t sing right now,” I say, squinting at her, as if by looking at her with less of my vision she will shrink. “How am I supposed to go with the flow when the river’s dried up?”
I turn and walk down the mountain and I will not climb it again.
But as I pass the crest, I look back. She is sitting on the lung rock with that annoying Mona Lisa smile on her lips, gazing across the valley. Suddenly my anger is gone. I don‘t know about Katryna, about her voice, about when the next time will be when we get to sing together. But I do, suddenly, inexplicably, know what it feels like to get angry, to cry, to shout, to breathe the way you breathe when you’ve just climbed a mountain. My lungs burn a little, saying, “We’re here. Exercise us.” My legs feel strong and ready for another climb. I turn and continue down the mountain. Tom is making pesto chicken for dinner. And even though I said I wouldn’t climb again, I think maybe I will come back tomorrow after all. The view is pretty spectacular, and you only get to see if you take the time to get to the top.
And really, it’s not that hard. It just takes a little time and attention.
Last night the rain spoke to me slowly, saying, what joy to come falling out of the brisk cloud, to be happy again in a new way on the earth!…
About temper tantrums. I owe apologies to both of my sisters and about a thousand other parents of children between the ages of 2 and 5 right about now. I…