Yesterday at a school in Oklahoma, teachers lay on top of their students to protect them as a tornado smashed through town. This is what teachers and parents do every day; they throw themselves between children and danger, hoping that such a frail shield will be enough. We keep getting reminded that all we have are these flimsy, breakable bodies, that sometimes all we can do is throw ourselves to the ground and hold on.
I was already thinking about loss. All week I’ve been trying to figure out the connection between loss and abundance. I’ve never agreed with people who say that loss exists to make us appreciate joy. Joy is its own tangible thing. You know this if you wake early; every single morning, one bird sings first. Being awake to hear that wild call into darkness, that summoning of light, isn’t the absence of anything.
The day Fred and I walked north and south as far as you could go on the beach at Laguna, clambering over rocks, skinning our knees, and peering into tide pools, wasn’t the absence of anything either. Joy didn’t come that day because no one we knew was dying. Joy came because an abundant world had cracked open, and we had shown up to see sculpin, sea anemones, and starfish washing in and out of the tide pools.
If loss isn’t a joy-deepener, what is it? The callous “suffering is God’s will” has always struck me as an oxymoron, and a particularly unkind one at that. I prefer to imagine a distraught God trying to talk a stubborn son out of crucifixion. I can picture a strong-willed young man-god explaining to his horrified father, “I know you didn’t mean for it to go this way, but, trust me, I know what I’m doing.”
I guess deep down, I don’t know what to make of Eden.
For almost a decade, I spent one week every year at a Zen Buddhist center in the Jemez with a bunch of teenagers. Buddhism taught me that my thoughts weren’t my self and that I could acknowledge anxiety and then let it go. It taught me to breathe, and to chant, and to be still and wait for understanding.
One of the four Noble Truths says that the origin of suffering is attachment. My understanding of Buddhism is whatever you call understanding before you can call it rudimentary, but this one always bothered me. How do you love and remain unattached? How can learning how not to hold on be a good thing?
For the record, I excel at holding on. My step kids laugh at the way I grip the strap above the passenger door when Fred is driving. I don’t lift my hands in the air on roller coasters (or at least I didn’t back when I used to ride them). I never let go of the handlebars, or even the steering wheel for that matter. In the picture from the Tower of Terror, one of those elevator-dropping rides that I got on accidently, you can barely see me; I’m tucked in behind Fred and holding on. Even when I’m riding the tram to the top of the Sandias, where my biggest fear is that the cable will snap and we’ll plummet to the canyon floor, I hold on to the pole in the middle of the cabin, as though somehow that grip could save me. I’ve got holding on down.
Non-attachment always sounded to me like not caring, like protecting yourself to avoid inevitable suffering. I know how to do that, and for me, learning to be alive in the world has meant un-learning that skill. I had to learn how to love enough to be destroyed by loss, and then, when loss almost destroyed me, I had to learn how to tread water beside it without letting it pull me under. I had to come to grips with the fact that the children I teach can die, and still throw myself on top of them as though every nascent promise will have a chance to blossom. I have to throw seeds into clayey ground and trust that something beyond my meager gardening skill will help them grow.
It took an Episcopal priest to help me understand this idea of loving without attachment. When the Rector of my church announced his upcoming retirement, I, along with an entire congregation, had several months to come to grips with the impending loss of a wise, compassionate, beloved teacher. Over those months, in sermons each week, he and the other clergy talked about love and grace and leaving.
At first I wanted them to stop. I didn’t want to live in the loss any sooner than I had to. But as they all kept talking, every week, in beautifully crafted sermon after sermon, I felt something in my grip unclenching.
Last Sunday after the final service, I went to a ballet recital. I watched as one of my students led a group of three year olds on stage. A minute or so into the dance, one little tutu’d girl stopped. She didn’t get confused or distracted or scared; today just wasn’t her dancing day. She folded her arms across her white leotard, dug in her white-tighted heels, stuck out her tiny lip, and pouted. Tiny tutu collisions followed as the other girls, their routine disrupted, lost their way on the big stage. My student danced on beautifully, her face relaxed and smiling, her dancing free and joyful.
When I first heard about our Rector’s retirement, I was that little girl in the tutu with my arms crossed. When the time came for our last service together, I was my student, able to keep dancing through a world that wasn’t organized around me.
One summer before I realized I like the idea of gardening more than I like gardening, I planted tomatoes, peppers, basil, thyme, and parsley in some clayey soil that gets too much sun next to a brick wall that radiates heat and cooks the plants all day. (My sister once added sage and rosemary to this mix and called it her Simon and Garfunkel garden.)
The parsley loved it. I put in two plants that year, and they grew bushy and tall, and I ate fresh parsley all summer. I remember those plants vividly because a parsley caterpillar spent July living on one of them. If you haven’t seen a parsley caterpillar, it looks more like something that came out of Pixar than out of creation. My grandson wore a Bee Transformer costume on his fourth birthday, and the parsley caterpillar looked a little bit like that.
I spend just enough time paying attention to the world that it’s still easy to surprise me. The parsley caterpillar, striped in neon green and black, dotted with bright yellowy-orange spots, would lift his head and wiggle his two bright green horns when I came into the garden to water. (Ok, I suspect I’m personifying, or at least canine-ifying here, but all I can do is tell you how the world feels to me.) I learned to water gently, so as not to wash him off his stem. Each day I’d peer at the parsley until I spotted him, say good morning, and update him on the dismal state of the other plants in the garden.
The first morning, certain I was experiencing something new on the planet, I did some research and learned that my little (ordinary) worm would grow up to be a black swallowtail. I wondered what he knew about who he was becoming. He didn’t seem concerned. He lazed on the parsley all summer. Back when we shared our house with three aging beagles, my sister described them as “decorations that follow you around.” That’s sort of how I felt about the caterpillar; he was a really cool animated plant decoration.
If you’re a real gardener, you already know how this story ends. One morning I showed up with the hose at my scrawny garden, and the parsley and the parsley caterpillar were gone. Every single leaf had been chewed to the stalk. It hadn’t occurred to me that one day he would leave and take the parsley with him, but it made sense. He’d had to find a new spot to spin himself into his shroud while he transformed. I looked around the garden, but I never found the chrysalis.
Mostly I don’t understand loss. I don’t understand how each loss holds every other loss. I don’t understand how we keep managing to live our way out of it. I don’t understand why sometimes these frail bodies are enough to hold back pain, and sometimes they buckle. For a while I wondered if abundance were about the present, the potential each moment has for bursting into beauty, and loss were about the past and future, and our fear of losing every impermanent thing. That doesn’t really explain it, though. Loss is every bit as present and tangible as joy.
Because my parsley caterpillar went away to cocoon, I missed the moment when the black swallowtail emerged into a new world. I didn’t see him light on the trumpet vine and wait quietly for his wings to dry. I don’t know if he burst out blinking into the sun, or unfolded himself easily into early evening.
Mostly I don’t understand loss. All I know is that that summer, the back yard was full of black swallowtails. I loved to watch how gently they brushed the planet. I can see them now as I watch my student dancing; they skip and flutter, they light for a moment on a branch that doesn’t bend, they swoop and hover. All they are is wing and wonder; nothing about them is built for holding on.