Archive for March, 2012

Pretty New Bag

Friday, exactly two weeks ago, I stopped by my friend DJ’s store.  I was leaving town the next day for a long-awaited retreat, and wanted to check with her about some details for an upcoming event.


I could have called her, but I didn’t. Because, you see, there was something in that store that I’ve been eyeing for a long time.


DJ carries all kinds of locally made beautiful things.  You can find pottery, jewelry, sweet little booties and mittens and scarves, gorgeous photos and cards—and bags.  Big leather shoulder bags made by a Toltec elder, a woman who cuts up old leather garments and puts them back together in lovely huge bags covered with traditional designs.  She layers it all over a sturdy backing material so that the old is really capable of maintaining its new beauty.


There was one bag that I had been looking at for close to a year.  Sturdy, colourful, with lots of pockets, and on the front was raven with the sun in his beak.  I’d fingered this pouch, tried it on, admired it, attempted to convince my friends to buy it.  But still it hung there.  It was just a bit too expensive and too unnecessary to justify.


On that Friday I snapped.  I told myself that I really needed something that could carry both my computer and my purse-things for travelling.  Yes, I had a black briefcase that George handed down to me a number of years ago…but it’s just not at all a pretty thing, and I do like pretty things.  So despite the balance of our bank account, I took that bag down, wrote a cheque, and carried it home.  And the next day I carried it out of the house with my passport in the nice little flapped pocket, and my wallet in the inner compartment, my boarding passes and itinerary tucked into side flaps, and my computer and a book slid neatly in the middle.  It was beautiful and tidy and I felt like I was good to go.


I signed up for this retreat over a year ago.  I’ve been reading the books of Cynthia Bourgeault—the retreat leader—voraciously for the past 18 months and really wanted to make connection with her and the community that supports her. She speaks of the human experience with such grace and honesty that it takes my breath away.  Here she is, speaking about incarnation and the inevitable constriction, suffering, and restraint we experience: Could it be that this earthly realm, not in spite of but because of its very density and jagged edges, offers precisely the conditions for the expression of certain aspects of divine love that could become real in no other way?  This world does indeed show forth what love is like in a particularly intense and costly way.  But when we look at this process more deeply, we can see that those sharp edges we experience as constriction at the same time call forth some of the most exquisite dimensions of love, which require the condition of finitude in order to make sense—qualities such as steadfastness, tenderness, commitment, forbearance, fidelity, and forgiveness.  These mature and subtle flavors of love have no real context in a realm where there are no edges and boundaries, where all just flows.  But when you run up against the hard edge and have to stand true to love anyway, what emerges is a most precious taste of pure divine love.  God has spoken his most intimate name.  (The Wisdom Jesus, 99—100.)


Cynthia Bourgeault was indeed all I had hoped for: wise, deep, openhearted, brilliant.  Her contemplative cosmology—which incorporated quantum physics—resonated deeply with my own experience; her treatment of the suffering and beauty of incarnation was inspirational.  My fellow retreatants were generous and thoughtful; the Tucson desert was beautiful; the rooms and food great; and there was a perfect blend of meditation and chanting, intellectual work, silence, and the practice of presence during physical work.  Even with a head cold and a norovirus outbreak (the first time I’ve ever meditated through throwing up), it was a remarkable experience.  I felt like I was able to own the depths of Christianity thoroughly, and integrate it with the science that is changing our worldview.  My beloved tradition felt cleansed and reworked; a new and vibrant vessel that could contain both heart and mind.  Like my pretty new bag made by the Toltec elder, Cynthia used old material and the old stories, added a sturdy new underlay, and fashioned something beautiful, strong, and functional.


The most difficult part of the retreat was, as always, the internal work.  With all that quiet, there was plenty of space to hear my mind’s neurotic non-stop commentary.  I kept running into those hard edges and boundaries.  I judged myself.  I judged others.  I was embarrassed by saying something stupid.  I was jealous of the teacher.  I almost drowned in a sea of wanting: to be part of the inner group, to be special, to say something smart, to get approval.  After swatting this stuff away repeatedly for a few days—banging up against those edges—I finally wrote in my journal, I am bored with myself and my desires.  This exhaustion with the inner drama was a start, at least, toward accepting my complete and sometimes unattractive self so I could find real quiet.  And maybe, possibly, a step toward a taste of love, real love; toward the capacity to run up against hard edges in the outer world and hold on with steadfastness, tenderness, commitment, forbearance, fidelity, and forgiveness, those mature and subtle flavours of love.


Wonderful as the retreat was, I have to admit it was a bedraggled and puny version of myself that crawled onto the 6 a.m. flight home.   The norovirus had left me weak and unable to eat much, and the head cold was coming on full force.  I had managed to find Kleenex, cough drops, cough syrup, sanitary hand-wipes and a good book to carry along on the plane.  It all caused my lovely raven bag to take on a decidedly lumpy character: there was a huge journal crammed in next to the computer, various medical sundries jammed in corners, charge slips hanging out of my wallet which I couldn’t seem to stow correctly, and books spilling out the top.  I was grateful to find my seat and room in the overhead bin to stow the whole mess.


The flight was full.  Since United charges baggage fees, most people were dragging their luggage with them.  I was seated and resting when a youngish woman came storming angrily down the aisle, trying to find room for her suitcase.  She jammed it into one bin, where it wouldn’t fit because of a seam; yanked it out and walked back to my row.  Looking over my head, she exclaimed loudly, I don’t understand why people think they can put their purses up here, and stormed on.


It took me a minute before I realized she was talking about me.  And then I thought, That’s not a purse, it’s my computer case.  I have a right to put it up there.  Next I thought, I paid to check my luggage, she should have too.  Finally came the thought, Well, this can be a lesson to her about what she gets back when she puts so much anger into the universe.


Now an elderly Hispanic man showed up, who needed to get into the middle seat of my row.  He was carrying a duffel bag.  At this point I stood up, grabbed my belongings out of the storage bin, and invited him kindly to put his bag up there.  Feeling virtuous, I placed my things under the forward seat (oh!  my lovely bag on the nasty plane floor!) and resumed my place.


I was able to feel virtuous for a little while, which was nice, at least until my conscience kicked my ass.  You could say that I recognized that I’d backed away, fast, from a hard edge.


I talked to George about it later, saying, If I had gotten up and offered to move my bag, that woman might have had an entirely different day.  He wisely pointed out that my assumption probably wasn’t true: it’s more likely that she would have felt she’d appropriately made her point and won.  Ah, I thought.  So moving the bag to make her “feel better” or change her would have been trying to control or fix her behaviour.


But it still felt like I should have moved my bag, and I finally figured out why.


Because I could.  I should have moved my bag because I could.  I didn’t need her to be right, virtuous, or deserving.  It didn’t depend on her worthiness or her capacity to change her behaviour.  She didn’t need to be good for me to be nice to her.  I could have easily moved the bag.  Instead, I chose to do that for someone else I found easier to be kind to.


I expect some of you may disagree with me, and that’s okay.  Maybe you think moving my bag would have been giving in to a bully.  But for me, I want to throw out the idea of worthiness, because I’m just plain tired of making judgments about people, myself included.  By this I don’t mean that I have quit thinking or that I shouldn’t exercise my judgment.  I just mean I am sick of the judgmental sorting that carries on like a background hum through my every waking hour.


And then, too, there’s the gospel.  I say to you, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you…give to everyone who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again… For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?


If I am serious about standing true to love at the hard edges, about trying to embody love in this costly, constricted world, then I have to do it without regard for the merit of the person who receives.  I don’t think I will be able to do this very well.  Actually, I know I do it badly, and that likely isn’t going to change much.  It’s just human to want to be nice to the ones who are nice to us.  But it’s those nasty rude buggers who bang around and make everyone miserable who really need love and consideration.


I think I have to make this effort (oh hell!) because otherwise, I may have a pretty new bag, but it’s still stuffed with the same old shit.