If our lives are made up of a string of a thousand moments, at some of those moments we look a lot more spiritually evolved than at others. This is a story about the latter.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses must be sleeping easier these days because the world seems to be coming to an end. But Sam lies awake at night. All the events of the last months fill him with fear and sadness, and he can’t sleep.
First there was the murder of the woman and two girls near Yosemite. Sam and I had been there recently, twice, at those same majestic spots where the girls mugged for the camera one last time. Then NATO went to war in Yugoslavia, or the former Yugoslavia, or the former former-Yugoslavia, that I guess is now Yugoslavia again. Then the Columbine massacre made Yugoslavia seem rather routine in comparison.
“Were the Columbine boys on drugs?” Sam asked hopefully.
“Nope, not as far as we know.”
Silence. “I guess they just weren’t any good at feeling bad.”
“That’s probably the smartest thing anyone has said so far.”
Poor Sam. Poor crazy everybody. About 20 minutes after this conversation, the tornadoes tore through the Midwest.
I hate that the more hysterical members of the Christian right are having such a field day, sure that their angry prophecies are finally coming true. But they’re wrong. It’s narcissistic to think that suddenly, in our times, things are desperately worse than anytime before. Things have always been crazy down here. We forget that the world has always seemed to be coming to an end, but now it’s noisier, more global, more rococo. The news of bad things just used to stay local or took forever to reach our shores. People used to hide like meerkats peeking out of the bunker—”Here it comes! Here it comes!” Huns, plague, predators. It’s really the same old same old, only now we see and hear about each distant disaster within seconds of its happening.
Not a year ago, we used to have terrible things happening worldwide on a daily basis, plus Pete Wilson was governor of California. But he isn’t anymore, so to me, that’s progress right there. But Sam and his friends have been having a hard time, and I wanted to help them get their optimism back. I wanted to give them something to hold on to, that might give them hope, like in this story by the late Rev. Charles Allen. He wrote that after World War II, the Allied armies in Europe gathered up thousands of homeless, orphaned children and took care of them in camps while trying to figure out what to do. The children were well fed, tended to by loving men and women, but they were so traumatized by what they had seen and what they had already lost that they simply could not fall asleep. Finally, someone in one camp started giving each child a slice of bread to hold while they slept. There was plenty of bread to eat when the children were hungry, but this one piece was just to hold, so that their deepest inside parts might rest in the assurance that there would be more food in the morning. And I wanted to give Sam some spiritual bread to hold besides the promise of Heaven, to warm him, and help him feel secure. So I asked friends for help.
They sent poems, postcards, cartoons, and I taped them all to the wall by my desk, and they actually helped me, and thus in the trickle-down economics of motherhood, they helped Sam too. Then he began to sleep a little better. It’s funny—you keep thinking there’s some fine spiritual gold jewelry out there that someone can give you or that you can earn, that’s going to save you. But fine jewelry doesn’t necessarily warm the heart. So our friends give us metaphoric handmade beads, quirky millefleurs made of cheap Fimo clay, and we string them together like a mala—Hindu or Buddhist prayer beads—a rosary. Holding these beads helps us remember that we are held. So beads or bread, something handmade to hold.
If I were to string the most recent offerings together, the first of these beads might be the cartoon that an old friend sent:
I laughed until tears ran down my face. I could breathe again! Then I made copies and sent it to everyone I could think of.
by Mary Oliver
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
Alongside it I might string part of a poem by Mary Oliver that came in over the fax.
I began to feel safe again. I remembered that I’m not in charge of much and I also remembered that there’s God’s plan, and there’s your plan, and your plan doesn’t matter. And everything that was happening was part of God’s plan. So I went back to what I absolutely believe is the secret of life, and what God wants of us: decency, service, praise for the now. So by way of praising the now last night, we skipped homework, lay on the floor and drew, read to each other; overate and then slept well.
Today Sam was in a car accident on the way to school.
But he is fine. All four kids in the car are fine, including a tiny baby. The mother who was driving was pretty banged up, because she was not wearing a seat belt. (Addendum . . . decency, service, praise the now, and wear seat belts.) All the children are now here with me at home as I write this, including the baby, who is asleep. Four children came through a very scary accident, and they are just all a little scared. Their being OK, my great fortune today, is the elastic on which I string my mala.
The last bead I would add right now is a postcard someone sent me. I don’t know why I find it so inspiring, maybe it’s like Rumi said:
I have no more words.
Let the soul speak with the silent articulation of a face.
The faces in this black-and-white photograph are of a Japanese family in a studio after their release from a World War II internment camp. There are six people, two rows of three, including two babies. They are all lit with light from beneath their chins, as if they’re in the glare of something huge. The studio light makes it seem that the light of another eye is upon them, but not God’s, because classically God’s eye would shine down from above. So to me, it’s a light that says, I take it on the chin. The mother’s stricken smile, both stressed and relieved, is pinned on like a corsage, while the father looks totally defeated. The two babies—one infant, one about a year—are gaping, visceral, like they’re picking up on everyone’s anxiety. The big girl, who looks about 5, is shining for all six people in her family, and the boy, who is maybe 10, is acting out for the same six.
The girl is wearing a brave little hair ornament that looks like thistle-down has landed in her hair and is still actually moving around her head but was caught in this position by the camera. The boy is wearing a splashy Hawaiian shirt, like he’s Coyote Trickster and as usual he’s going to break through. His thumb is out slightly, like he’s going to hitchhike right out of this family. The dad is clutching his own thumb as if he is manacling himself so he won’t float away. The little girl has soft, sea-anemone hands folded in her lap. The babies hold rattles. The mother’s hands are palms-up, as if she is pleading, staring intently into the camera: “We have come through. Please recognize it.” She looks so vulnerable, so fierce in her love and so grateful, that it silences me.