Monday, May 21, 2007

Chop Wood, Carry Water

New York

I entered the subway at 81st street early this morning on my way to Penn Station, my backpack weighted down with my new computer, and large bags on either arm. The platform was packed and hot. Impatient, I leaned toward the tracks, peering down the dark tunnel in hopes that I would see the lights of the C train in the distance as it traveled south from Harlem. It goes straight downtown, stopping right at 34th Street and the station.

The B train arrived. I stepped in, muttering to myself--yet another imperfect, unlucky twist of fate in an otherwise dark time. I got off at 7th Avenue before the B goes down to Rockefeller Center and then veers off toward the east, away from my destination.

I followed the masses up the subway steps onto Broadway. In the 20 blocks that I walked to the station, I saw all of the reasons I love and hate New York. A man wandering, against the crowd, his long black hair covering his bowed head, talking quietly to himself; a couple of teenagers arm in arm, who at every red light , stole kisses and soulful glances; Pin stripe suited men and women, bluetooth growing out of their ear, Starbuck's in hand, bumping and edging their way through Midtown.

In the midst of it all, I felt completely alone, completely swallowed by the tasks that lay ahead for me, those I have faced in the recent past. I remembered an old, wise friend saying to me about dark times: "You just gotta hunker down; it always passes; the smallest things will carry meaning or at least move you through the moment. You know, that saying--chop wood, carry water--that's all you can do. And wait."

On the New Jersey Transit to Trenton, I thought about this new set of tasks that brought me back to Philadelphia. Before surgery, I had sustained sizable water damage due to a burst pipe. I hired the contractor's son who had gutted the place originally. Frankly,it was the path of least resistance. But, as Marketing 101 says: it's easier for old clients (like me ) to pick up the phone and call again than it is to find someone new, someone unknown. His strengths, I learned early post op when the demolition of the damaged area began, were not his father's. He was not much for team problem-solving, had pretty sketchy listening skills, and tended to disappear for periods of time. Oh, and over-promise.

So, I let him go after six weeks of trying to work with him and recover from surgery. He was surprised ( that was, ironically, very confirming to me about my decision.)

I asked him to tally up his charges for the demolition he did, deduct the amount from the deposit I had given him in good faith. And I began the search for new contractors who would provide new estimates which I would have to vet through the insurance company. Delays, delays, delays.

Oh, and by the way, did I mention that the contractor not only didn't send a refund, he sent me a bill for and additional $1500? He could have demolished Yankee Stadium for the amount of my deposit! I'm always surprised ( even at my advanced age ) at someone choosing retribution over justice. It was hard not to take it personally, hard not to feel let down.

I return again to the house, to walking across 2by8s in the water damaged area where the floor has been removed, very carefully balancing so that I don't fall into the cement slab below. External chaos makes me nuts--especially after a couple of months.

Well, dear reader, you may be thinking : "Cry me a river".

But I'm writing this very personal account of the changes I'm experiencing ( some of which are too personal to reveal here ) because this is the whole reason I started this blog. To talk, ruminate, explore the meaning, or lack of meaning of living; the twists and turns that can leave me--or you--on the floor of a bathroom sobbing, inconsolable. What John of the Cross called "the dark night of the soul" What Hemmingway wrote about over and over--and after the breaks and buffeting of life's small, doggedly painful disappointments and suffering, he said we become " Strong at the broken places." Because I believe we are witnesses to one another that these dark times exist, and perhaps offer the comfort of knowing that we are not alone in our suffering, of its universality. My journey as metaphor.

On arrival at the house, I rounded the corner of the garage and glanced at the Buddha that I had purchased just last week-- I didn't know why then, nor that she was the earth goddess. I had gone to the nursery for geraniums, and came back with a stone goddess. But today, she looked so peaceful, so calming, warming in the sun, her legs in lotus position, her head bowed in prayer.

So, instead of making the business calls I went back to the nursery and found a beautiful pot of deep blue lobelia. I put on my gloves, picked up the trowel from the basket of garden tools in the garage, and planted the delicate plant at her feet.

When I finished, I was curious about what she represented,so I googled and found her. She is called Tara( earth goddess ) by the Tibetans. Wikipedia says: "In the system of mind training practices offered by the great masters of Tibetan wisdom, Tara is an archetype of our own inner wisdom. They speak of a transformation of consciousness, a journey to freedom. They teach many simple and direct means for each person to discover within themselves the wisdom, compassion and glory that is Tara." Hmmm.

My planting exercise didn't change the water damage, the slow post op recovery, the shabby behavior of the contractor, the search for meaning right now. But it did, temporarily restore my willingness to stay steady, whatever happens. It is exactly the kind of physical and spiritual--tiny, tiny step--to finding my way again.


1 comment:

James said...

I've been thinking a lot about your recent entries. It has really helped me to see your insight into suffering, and participate, as you put it in your most recent entry, in "exploring the meaning, or lack of meaning in living." I generally subscribe to the view that life has no intrinsic meaning, but we as humans have been given the gift of creation, so that life can take on the meaning we ascribe to it. This is a curse to those who lose sight of their own internal vision, and a blessing to those who can hold onto that spark of creation even through the dark times.

There is always the comfort that suffering is the truly universal experience of all humankind. But at the end of the day, we are all consigned to suffer within ourselves. No one is spared that journey, and there is always the final dark corner of loneliness where no one can follow. So I offer my hope and encouragement: keep the spark of creativity going. Face the night bravely! Our only hope lies in defying the bitterness of defeat.

From Bertrand Russell:

"Except for those rare spirits that are born without sin, there is a cavern of darkness to be traversed before that temple [of enlightenment] can be entered. The gate of the cavern is despair, and its floor is paved with the gravestones of abandoned hopes. There Self must die; there the eagerness, the greed of untamed desire must be slain, for only so can the soul be freed from the empire of Fate. But out of the cavern the Gate of Renunciation leads again to the daylight of wisdom, by whose radiance a new insight, a new joy, a new tenderness, shine forth to gladden the pilgrim's heart.... Brief and powerless is Man's life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for Man, condemned to-day to lose his dearest, to-morrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; disdaining the coward terrors of the slave of Fate, to worship at the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate, for a moment, his knowledge and his condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power."