A Simple Yearning for Home

Julia Cumes - birdsToday I am wearing my red shoes.

I spent yesterday in a fog as thick as one might see on a spring morning over the Vineyard Sound. My weekend back on Cape Cod hung around me like a shroud – a thick blanket of memories that warmed me even as it muffled the world around me. I couldn’t find joy in the days at home with my family for all that I felt compelled to mourn being away.

Last evening I went to visit the woman I can only describe as my “healer” – a small, undervalued term to describe someone who has helped me immeasurably and who does amazing work with energy that I am just beginning to understand. I spun her a few tales about my fears of leaping out of a settled job and the feeling of urgency to start acting to change the world on a piece of land that I love so well and several other theories about why I felt so off balance in the face of making this theoretical move. That’s when she laughingly and forcefully informed me that all of these intellectual reasons for why it might be hard to go back to the Cape even though it seemed to be the right thing to do in many ways was, frankly, bullshit.

“You want to go home. It’s as simple as that.”

And she is right, that is what I want, and this new existential dilemma is rooted only in the basic yearning for something so simple that I can barely credit it. I am meant to be a complex, cerebral creature who is ready to adventure across the world and send back post cards to mom and dad, not be the one down the street who drops by for tea on a random Tuesday afternoon! The place I came from – the ocean that perfumes it, the winds that buffet it, the tourist traffic that plagues it – finally that arm of sand is making itself known as integral part of myself, an essential, elementary force in my life.

When I stop spinning through the little dramas I have concocted around how difficult it will be to color outside the lines and construct a life somewhere with a reputation for expensive homes and few “good” jobs, I will realize the problem with my desire to be back where I began is not about the logistics of modern existence. It is about understanding simplicity and the recognition of the power of home and a voice deep inside of me that says “I want.”

The problem with dipping into too many spiritual texts and self-help books is that you are often left with any number of conflicting pieces of wisdom and nonsense. With the little I know of Buddhism, I can reject such wanting as too much attachment. But then, how many books are written to help empower the individual to cast a dream into the contrary winds of life and dare to chase it.

I will surely be grappling with the spiritual ramifications of want for some time, but for now I am comforted (if still more than a little surprised) by the sweetness of declaring I am more like Dorothy Gale than I ever imagined.

Kansas, Cape Cod, whatever. I am on my way.

Rescuing Childhood from the Jaws of Maturity

I am not sure where I got the idea that I was lousy at being a kid, but it is something that I have known for a long time. I realize that is a pretty negative thing to say, but hunches about one’s personality are rarely rooted in kindness or even reality. Perhaps it was when, at about ten, a friend told me that I was in too much of a rush to grow up. I remember feeling the need to abandon dolls for my first lip gloss and silly teen magazines and being shocked at her resistance to such “progress.”

By college, when friends were writing these insightful seeming essays about playground experiences that had changed the course of their lives, I realized how distanced I felt from the early years of my life. Really, who wanted to hear about what I did in the waiting room before I got through the door of full-fledged personhood? As soon as I could I spent a great deal of the time reading novels full of what might be called “mature themes” in a desperate bid to figure out the mysteries of adulthood and, in turn, life in general.

Now, I may lapse into great bouts of silliness and I am known to lose my mastery of complete sentences in the presence of truly adorable puppies, but I don’t tend to have the stomach for cartoons and I think I have the sense to avoid trying to write for the trendy new audience hungry for adolescent fiction. These days I have a bit more respect for the child I once was; in college I was too focused on the future to sift through elementary school experiences for gems of the past. But still, my own ancient history never seems to have the resonance of more recent events.

The lingering connection to my child self became powerfully apparent this weekend, however. A friend’s exuberant canine friend was doing a tour of the house. I hoped it would calm her down if she explored the place a little so the humans could drink some wine unaccompanied by whining (I was confident that the cats were clever enough to hide well out of sniffing range). We chatted for a while, but then my friend showed she knows her dog well enough to get a little concerned when she is quiet for any length of time…

She reached the happy hound in time to save my teddy bear’s face, but not his nose.bear.jpg

Maybe it was the lateness of the hour, or maybe it was that extra glass of wine, but before I knew it, my tears were falling on a fuzzy face already damp with doggy drool. I never would have thought myself capable of such a visceral reaction over a twenty year old bit of plushness, but it was as if the direct line to my girlhood had been tampered with. Of course, I am a woman who brought a teddy bear to her marriage bed, so I cannot claim such sophistication that this eruption of sentimentality was a complete surprise. At the same time, what I thought was a familiar thing to hold while I fell asleep was actually a palpable link to the version of me that existed before all of the books and theories marked my sense of who I am.

This incident brought to mind a half remembered adage about coming to God like a child. I guess I was thinking of that verse that seems to be from Matthew: “Unless you become like little children you will never enter the kingdom.” I have seen this idea surface in so many modern commentaries, mainly to advocate the idea of stripping away the ego and recovering that sense of wonder and trust so that you can be aware of the mysteries of the Divine.

Because I bought into the cult of maturity at such a young age, I think I was really convinced that the way to succeed in life was through amassing more knowledge and shrugging off the mantle of innocence. A missing plastic nose made me realize that I may not be so cerebral and worldly after all. Reflecting on this experience, I realize maybe I might not want to be. My child-self may not be the indistinct shadow I once thought necessary. I think I may finally be getting old enough to embrace her again.

Life Changing Philosophy and Bumper Sticker Ethics

“Why do we have to spend our lives striving to be something we would never want t0 be, if only we knew what we wanted? Why do we waste our time doing things which, if we only stopped to think about them, are just the opposite of what we are made for?”

– Thomas Merton (quoted in James Martin’s Becoming Who You Are)

I read Martin’s slim book about the search for the true self this morning and was transported by Merton’s quote, feeling as if he were speaking directly to me as I try to sort out my perspective on occupation and duty on the one hand, and dreams and destiny on the other. My education and experience position me to continue to climb the professional ranks; the inherited family work ethic has generally lead me to follow this path without question. But now the questions refuse to fade into the background and the path looks like it leads to a thicket of doubt and mediocrity rather than an upward spiral to worthy achievement.

One of Martin’s central theses is that we are never alone in this search for meaning and identity. If you think your existential dilemmas are more harrowing than someone else’s, you’re probably just a touch self-absorbed. Trying not to assume that my current internal debate is any more taxing than other people’s, however, only makes the choice of what to do next marginally easier. I am certain that some of this could be chalked up to being a recently married college graduate in her late twenties who was raised to be believe that she was clever and accomplished and could have it all. That would really explain my predicament if I was wondering how to balance career and motherhood, but we are not even there yet. Right now, I am trying to sort out how to reconcile the pull of a full time spiritual, writerly life even though I think I cannot bear the guilt associated with leaving what, by all appearances, is a lovely job that compensates me quite well.

Being a Jesuit, Martin flavors his work with examples from the lives of the saints. That’s probably the best way to maintain some perspective and remember that my current crisis does not rank all that close to say, Thomas Aquinas (his family imprisoned him for two years in an attempt to get him to forget about running away to join the Dominicans). At the same time, articulating my desire to leave the 9-5 life behind seems like one of the most difficult things I have ever done – marriage was a simple “yes” in comparison!

As I try to employ this bit of wisdom from Thomas Merton, I admit I am reminded of a cute little slogan that graces the bumper of many a Subaru wagon around here:If it's not fun why do it?

To tell the truth, I have always sort of hated that sentiment (even if Dublin Mudslide is the best flavor ever). All I can think about when I see that line are all of the not-so-fun things that are quite essential – trips to the dentist and the dump, paying taxes, walking a dog on a dark, rainy night. Guess I am not such a crazy hippy after all…

But you do not have to look too far to realize that Merton was not giving us sugar coated philosophy when he talks about “what we are made for.” To follow his lead and question our current existences in an attempt to sort out whether we are striving to become something we don’t really want to be is not to choose a sundae instead of a salad, hedonism over maturity. It is an act of ultimate bravery that may take us outside of the expected social norms, but is the only way to fully understand your purpose in life. The question for me is to determine whether I actually have to leave the framework of my current occupation behind in order to discover what I am truly meant to accomplish in this world.

And maybe, just maybe, Ben and Jerry really wanted to say “If it’s not uniting you with your true self, why do it?” but it wouldn’t fit on the back of a Volkswagon.

Inner Light and Other Dangerous Business

Candles 1 - greyman stock.xchng“Your task? To work with all the passion of your being to acquire an inner light, so you escape and are safe from the fires of madness, illusion, and confusion that are, and always will be, the world.”

–Rumi (trans. Andrew Harvey)

Inner light. What can seem more distant as we push through our daily lives, confined to routine and obligation, trapped by the illusion that there is not enough time or energy or resources to effect change? It seems no less that the human condition to dream of transformation and simultaneously cherish the belief that altering one’s situation is inherently impossible. Certainly there are the rare few who can truly be the change they wish to see, and we read their books and celebrate their vision, often with national holidays. The rest of us, however, seem mired in the world of dashed hopes and shimmering mirages.

Am I too pessimistic tonight? I only write of this sense of shared stultification because I am so afraid that I am just another victim who reads all of the right books and says the right prayers but forgets them as soon as her trust in the beauty of the world is called into question. At work the other day we discovered what seemed the perfect e-mail signature: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your front door.” The unspoken sentiment that we all might prefer to be home with husbands and cats and perhaps even a Lord of the Rings marathon hung in the air as we drifted back to work. We just might like life better if we were not confronted with the madness and illusion that experience and the Sufi poet tell us are inevitable.

Recently I have found my capacity to walk through Rumi’s fires of confusion to be in serious jeopardy. I claim despair at the ugliness and cruelty of the world and the pettiness of the people around me. When I can call on the greater inner voice of wisdom that so often gets drowned out by my victimhood I can understand that such whining about everyone’s else’s attitude is as boring as it is useless. Perhaps it is just an adjustment period as I try to find my bearings even as my perspective begins to shift in light of all that I am learning. Or maybe it is a sign that I have to finally step up and make some of those changes that I imagine in the moments before I fall asleep each night. At any rate, I guess it is time to redouble those efforts to actually practice walking in the paths of those saints and visionaries who seem to be able to make dreams manifest. It is as simple and as tragically complex as cultivating that inner light that I know Rumi would say is already there, glowing within us all.

Deciphering the Shape of My Heart

Reflecting on my day as I drove home tonight I thought about compassion fatigue, a phrase I was first introduced to while at a disappointing writing workshop that seemed less about language and more about the airing one’s pain. In this situation, the women and I who rebelled and decided to sit in the sun rather than listen to people recount their childhood horrors in prose (which were most probably valid, though such narratives had much more to do with therapy than with wordsmithery and we wished to discuss the latter) really could not stand any more tales of fathers who never told their daughters they were pretty. We excused ourselves by declaring that we had paid for another sort of week entirely and that we fielded quite enough suffering in our workaday lives.

Roofus - stock.xchngSince I am not actually a professional caregiver, I probably have very little claim to compassion fatigue in what seems to be an official sense (I cannot speak for this website as I just stumbled on it, but apparently people are putting a great deal of thought into the subject). At the same time, I think anyone who pays much mind to the news these days must suffer from at least form of this nebulous syndrome. There are of course two options: absorbing reality television that has absolutely nothing to do with reality but quite a bit to do with avarice and cruelty best left on the playground, and actually doing something about the darkness in the world.

Actually, I take that back, there are many choices that lay between being a couch potato and quitting one’s job to help rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward. I must imagine that there are countless people who, much like me, would consider themselves to be decent creatures hoping to propagate some goodness and peace, yet are conscious of the risk of walking around with an open heart. How can one pass through the day and fulfill family obligations and hold the job that is expected of her if she is constantly consumed by all that is wrong out there? Perhaps these thoughts betray my own cowardice, but I fear I am not alone in my inability to act in the face of so many environmental crises and people in desperate need.

But I had to remind myself that there is so much to do without getting pulled out by the riptide of despair into an unmanageable sea of an imperfect planet. It all starts with the existence I actually do inhabit each day. That was when I started singing “Shape of My Heart” from Sting’s Ten Summoner’s Tales (an album that, along with Fumbling Towards Ecstasy set the course of my high school soul). Something about love hidden beneath a gambler’s hand, passion masked by a card player’s face… My love for this world buried beneath what is expected and what needs to get done and who needs to be pleased – I am meant to be witty and a bit sarcastic and please the crowd with a punchline rather than with sweetness.

Really though, who is truly served if I berate myself for staying in and writing these words instead of volunteering my time somewhere or sacrificing all that I know for those who need me “more”? Isn’t there enough to do in living the truth of my heart and being profligate with my compassion to enrich the lives of those around me?

Courting Chaos, Contemplating Completeness

It is difficult to commit words to the page when I feel as if I am spinning in constant cycles between chaos and completeness. Every tempest is my own creation and a sense of solace is always a few deep breaths away.

photo by Samuel EichnerPerhaps because creatures trapped in perpetual motion attract one another, I know I am not the only one who manufactures her own state of flux. I have had countless conversations that start “look at us, we are so lucky, but how can we keep catapulting ourselves into such misery with all this over-thinking and self-obsession?” More than a few late nights have been spent discussing why one friend or another and I have hyperactive minds and restless spirits that make us refuse ourselves the permission to settle into daily routine It’s as if we have an aversion to “life” with a lower case “l” as we force ourselves to constantly ponder the capital “L” questions of “Life.” At such moments we imagine it would be nicer to watch John Cusack movies and discuss recipes and shoes and curse our radioactive brains, even as we know we would never give up the internal debate.

I think that all of this ferment makes me feel more evolved; a soul in this much upheaval must be on the route to a truly amazing breakthrough. Plus, it is an excellent excuse for why I cannot settle into a steady meditation practice. Sure, I am aware that meditation would quiet the whirling dervish within and that you don’t wait for perfect serenity to close your eyes and seek stillness, but who has time for such wisdom when one is so busy, well, seeking wisdom.

I’m reasonably certain that this addiction to spinning in circles is a response to a culture that tells us that we can never get enough and that perpetual motion means you must be moving up the ladder. In such a banal maelstrom it is nearly impossible to cool the chaos and realize the Eastern ideals of living without attachment and desire. I am learning that an existence free of attachment does not sentence one to an ascetic cell without sensual pleasures, but is instead about accepting rather than reacting to situations. Happiness is infinitely more attainable if emotions are permitted to pass right on through rather than constantly getting trapped in the body and clouding up the mind. It seems, however, that the more relevant and perfect I perceive such philosophies to be, the more scattered I become.

To my own detriment I have equated contentment with complacency for far too long and have feared stillness and acceptance. As soon as peace seems too palpable or I really consider embracing the person that I am and the way life flows around me, I seem to veer off into another drama of my own devising. It’s like constantly chasing my shadow because I have confused the false outline of my being with my true self.

In some ways I hesitate to even put such thoughts on the page because to discuss them is to give this perpetual game a sense of power and reality, but I dare to hope to name chaos is the first step to its undoing.