November 19, 2012 § 18 Comments
But I have no faith myself. I refuse it even the smallest entry. – David Whyte
I haven’t written much in a while, mostly because of something my Buddhist friend once told me: “If you don’t know what to do, the wisest thing is to do nothing.”
But now that we have been in our house for two months, I am able to think about this summer more clearly, or at least with less fog. This move from Alexandria, Virginia to Jacksonville, North Carolina, this transition from a 100-year old house inside the Beltway to a 1950’s home on a Marine base has been a long haul from normalcy to the absurdist take on the suburbs that all military bases are. More than a move, it has been a shift; a transformation more than a transplantation. This summer dislodged something I hadn’t even noticed was loose. I think what really happened is that my definition of faith – faith with italics and quotations and capital letters – was shown to be rather flimsy and breakable, a saccharine version of something that was never meant to be sweet.
When I left the Washington, DC area, I also left a life of comfort – of Waldorf schools and yoga studios and civilian normalcy – and moved into a single room of a hotel in the saddest town in North Carolina. Every day, I had to drive by the men sitting on the curb outside the unemployment office, the woman who reeked of gin and pulled a shopping cart behind her, the harried mothers in the grocery store who slapped their children with a startling ferocity. I was only 9 hours from DC, and yet I might as well have been 9000 miles away, in this town where Spanish moss hung from the branches and the sky shimmered with heat. After pursuing comfort for almost 20 years, I had finally gotten myself to the most uncomfortable place I could find.
At first, I tried everything I could to make the feeling go away. I did a lot of yoga. I started to meditate. I tried to pray. I longed for more faith. I wanted to lean into belief as though it were a cushion, a pile of feathers, a clean bank of snow. And yet, what faced me every time I stepped on my yoga mat or drove to the grocery store was the sour knowledge that to have faith meant believing in a god who allowed horrible things to happen.
In a way, living on base has been a balm for the raw grief of this summer. I live on a street with one hundred identical houses, varying only in the color of the shingles or the doors. There are no criminals on base, everyone has a job, and no one is hungry. Our neighbors are lovely and three of them now have labrador puppies. Oliver adores his first grade teacher, and often, six children are playing soccer in our front yard. It’s as though I have traveled back in time to 1956, to a world so stable and secure and idyllic, I sometimes have to doublecheck the date.
But then artillary practice begins, and the house rattles. I see one of the five children on my street born with special needs. I drive through the base gate, by the guards with their enormous machine guns, while on NPR, there is more news from Gaza. Another neighbor ties a yellow ribbon to the giant oak in her front yard, signaling that her husband too is gone, en route to a place where the air smells like burning garbage and bombs are buried underground.
And then that feeling returns, the muffled howl that a divine god is at odds with the tragedies occurring every day. It’s so convenient to believe that everything happens for a reason, it’s so comforting to have this thought as the morning sun streams through the kitchen window, the scent of coffee and cinnamon in the air, but then I open the blinds and see the ambulance outside my neighbor’s house. I realize with a wave of nausea that her son is on the stretcher and is being loaded inside.
And so I am trying my best to believe right now in what I can see, in the immense gifts that present themselves each day, like armfuls of flowers. I take comfort in bike rides and Anne Rockwell books and waiting for the school bus. The boys and I walk down to the bay with the neighbor kids, who pretend they are kings and wave sticks at each other. They shout at me to lookit as they balance on the rocks and then we are silent as fish leap from the water. I find refuge in looking both ways before crossing the street as we all head back home. There is comfort in the click of the heater as it comes on at night, in the golden light that pours from other people’s windows on my nightly walks. I find magic in the way the deer snorts from the woods along the path, right before he rushes out – a buck! – only a few feet from me. There is the love my husband gives me, the presents he doles out daily: the smile, the hug, the dash out to the store to see if they have Uggs in my size. And maybe there is even comfort in the sadness, in the immense relief that comes from no longer having to pretend that we are safe, that everything is going to be okay, that we are all going to live forever.
I linked arms with my neighbor as we took our kids trick-or-treating. We have only known each other for six weeks, and yet, her son’s illness and her need of my help – no her acceptance of my help – have made me feel as if it has been much longer, and I am grateful for this too. As the kids ran from house to house, the two of us peered into homes identical to our own and took stock of their decor, their lighting, the flower boxes beneath their windows. We talked about what it was like to move so often, to feel the ground shift under our feet every two years and I asked her how she managed it so gracefully. “I don’t think of this as home,” she confided to me. “This is just where my stuff is for now.”
Something lightened in me after she said this and I felt a divine sort of joy as we watched our children race in their costumes. I realized that this dark Halloween night, these bright autumn days, these years of parenting small children might just be the golden ones, the sweetest ones. I took refuge in the thought that perhaps faith is not as necessary as gratitude, that maybe they are even the same thing.