The divine, in this world, is all dressed up in mortal clothes, and longing and mortality are so profoundly intertwined as to be, finally, inseparable.
This is not the tropic paradise one imagines when thinking of Hawaii. A gray sea scuffed white by a gale, ceaseless wind buffeting the walls of a house, gusts sweeping sheets of rain across a pasture, a sopping wet herd of sheep bleating for relief. Wind howling with a winter voice. Wind sending a deck chair careening across a porch.
I woke this morning in the dark to that wind.
The other morning, after reading the day’s meditation from Mark Nepo’s Book of Awakening, I tried to see myself from far above, a small fleck sitting before an even smaller flame (one candle burning on a tiny altar) on an island in the vast Pacific. It’s been windy here at the northern tip of the island since I arrived, 45 mph gusts drilling into the sea surface, sending up spouts and devils. Buffeted by such wind and monsoon rains, one can easily feel too big for one’s britches, personally thwarted by weather, the clothes on the line, the dirt road to town, never drying. Or one can feel tiny. I closed my eyes and tried to picture myself from far above, as Nepo suggested, listened to trade wind, that entity that encircles these latitudes, with or without me, before, during, after. Sometimes it’s scary to bow down to the knowledge of how tiny I really am. How big the world, and time. I could be wiped away with one sweep of that wind’s enormous, erasing hand. Sometimes it’s hard to face the endurance of things like rocks.
I’ve started reading the memoir Heaven’s Coast by poet Mark Doty. It’s about his journey through the death of his partner from AIDs in the mid-1990’s. It’s set on Cape Cod, my other home. When Doty was writing the book, a friend insisted “long-term survivors, you’ve got to address long-term survivors.” Doty saw that this man wanted him to take a stance of hope in his book. He described it as ultimately a “stance toward the world.” This is the true nature of the world: time and wind never stop to look down at what we’re up to. They are indifferent. This is the world: our prayers get swept up and carried by wind along a belt of latitude encircling the planet. If you lie awake at night in the dark and listen, you’ll hear the singing, praying, murmuring, beseeching, of all that desire. This is us in the world: desire. Maybe that’s God, the wind, our collective voices. That’s how we’re not alone. In a strange way, Doty’s friend’s request for a message of hope reminds me of the pink ribbon stance toward breast cancer, and why it rings false. To experience cancer is to be asked to dig deeper than hope. Besides. “The world has one long-term survivor,” Doty responds, “which is the world.”
Another squall passes across this piece of land. The lambs in the pasture ask why, the sheep answer in throaty tremuloes. It’s light out now, 7:30 am. I woke in the dark, before six, tip-toed into my writing room, lit a candle, listened to the wind chimes and rain swishing along sideways. A year ago, I came to Hawaii a day past my last radiation treatment: burned, tired, fragile. The wind has swept that year away. I’ve reentered the stream – I want to say after what now seems a back eddy of cancer treatment and physical recovery – but the stream is actually a river, and there are many back-eddies. And the river is big, a Colorado. And I’m basically a feather upon it.
And I admit I really don’t know how to meditate or pray right; I just fake it. When I sit there and listen to the wind, and suddenly get it, how much bigger all the world is than me, when I acknowledge I’m just a speck, a feather, well, first it’s exhilarating, but then my thoughts engage, and I wonder, isn’t this what I was studying during all of those meditation retreats, reading all of those books, letting go of desire, accepting that I’m nothing, dissolving the edges of self? But Buddhism isn’t actually my religion, I’m finding. I’d get an F for my methods in front of the altar, my black notebook with its scribbled lists of gratitudes and prayers. Even with that wind unceasing, I still want my specific life, and the wind gives it to me, the permission to want what I want, without hope of receiving anything. It doesn’t make promises. Just accepts all of my prayers into itself as it sweeps by, blind to my need and generous. Mark Doty writes “…there is something in the grand scale of dune and marsh and sea room for all of human longing, placed firmly in context by the larger world: small, our flames are, though to us raging, essential.” There is something, also, in the grad scale of this wind.
He writes that his lover Wally never stopped desiring things. A few weeks before death, he wanted a puppy, so they got one. Doty describes a photograph he took of Wally, in his hospital bed, reaching out to stroke the puppy. “That is how I will always see my love: reaching toward a world he cannot hold and loving it no less, not a stroke less.”
Even though I don’t believe the wind will grant me what I want, I ask anyway, and every morning I say thanks for all that is given, unasked for. The oddest things. Yesterday, changing in the car after swimming, crowded in the backseat with my two step-daughters, awkwardly transferring my breast prosthesis from my running bra to my regular bra, I reached across and slapped my step-daughter on the thigh with with the silicone mound, and then all three of them, my step-kids, Elli, Lars and Eve, passed the damn thing around, squeezed it, admired its squishiness. We laughed crazily. “There is something very wrong about this,” I said. And there was, something wonderfully wrong. And something just as wrong about the way I prayed this morning, in gratitude for the gift of our irreverence. For that very wrongness. And then the wind swept it all away.