I’ve always been something of a spiritual nomad…or possibly a spiritual polygamist, depending on who’s judging…but it felt destined. Like I was born into a desert too damn vast, silent, and starlit not to explore. I had to roam. Something deep inside would have died or worse if I hadn’t been able to wander from church to temple to tree covered glade, asking all the weird questions that have always haunted me, looking at life through every set of eyes I could borrow.
Desperate and searching for grace.
I wound up assembling a belief system from it all. A little rag tag, to be sure, but one that helped me navigate the good times and survive the bad and, really, that’s all a good set of beliefs is supposed to do anyway. It was enough for me.
And then I entered the homes of the dying and all my carefully collected beliefs got blown out of the water. Kablam! Just like that. I looked down at the tattered shreds in my hands, muttering what? What?! then looked up at a world that was beautiful, luminous, in a way I’d never noticed before. So much so, in fact, that it was hard getting things done, because it’s challenging to focus when your heart swells to the point where you’re about to burst into tears all the time.
So what do I believe in all these years later? It’s hard to answer because it feels like the thoughts drained down out of my head and into my chest. I don’t have words for it yet—what I believe in I mean. What I have are recollections. Memories. Moments of awareness.
Like standing by the bedside of a dying woman in tremendous pain, tenderly, slowly, oh-so-gently bathing her aching, quivering body. I had the oddest sensation that my hands grew huge, full of something sweet and searing, as if they were cradling her and cradling her family and cradling their home and cradling myself. And afterwards I walked out to the car and gripped the steering wheel like I was falling off a cliff, trembling and shaken by some vast current I felt flowing through the house. A current that had come to collect her, surrounding and floating and washing her away to somewhere else.
There’s a memory of sitting, nodding, by a dying man’s armchair as he lay still and quiet, eyes closed. And suddenly I noticed all the particles inside him, particles in the room. Strange, lovely, luminous things that rose and orbited through the air, combining and recombining like miniature constellations and galaxies. They seemed slow and graceful and ancient to me, alive and vibrant as if they were conscious, and looking at them made me feel like my skin was glowing. I still remember the wonder I felt, the amazement, like they were tiny, radiant beings coming together to create our bodies, our chairs and clothing and cars, all the diversity of the physical world around us. But only for a heartbeat before they dispersed again, moving on to create something else after us, new constellations and galaxies, new bodies, new life.
I watched the wrinkling nose of a dying man as he described the stench of the field where the bodies were stacked after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Listened to a dying woman recount playing beside the ovens of a converted German concentration camp as a child. Felt the hair rise on the back of my neck as an old mother’s eyes darted from corner to corner, whispering how four of her children all died at once, long ago, trapped in the tree house they built and accidentally burned with a book of matches they found.
There are so many memories now, recollections of standing witness as heart after heart foundered and broke, falling one after another into a waiting pool of stillness. It was a dark and tender pool, big enough to hold all their pain and all their lives, and each time my heart broke and fell in, too, with theirs.
That’s what I believe in now, I guess. I believe in that pool of tenderness, waiting and waiting to catch my heart each time it breaks. I believe that my suffering and joy are entwined, inseparable and, in the end, the same, and that I’m fine just the way I am, whether it feels like it or not. I believe that everything is still okay, no matter how lonely, frightening, or painful it gets, and that the more I surrender and fall, the safer I feel. And I believe that that moment…that brief, exquisite moment…when my heart breaks and falls and finally remembers, is the biggest miracle of all.
copyright 2010 Dia Osborn