One Small Step
I’m on a train to New York City from upstate in order to hear a Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hahn, speak at a Broadway theater. I have bought a ticket and made plans to sleep on a friend’s couch because I am feeling lost these days and on this side of an ugly divorce after thirty-six years of marriage. I have fallen to my knees in this unanticipated world I find myself in and begged the universe for direction. I am hungry for familiar routines and traditions with my former husband, and beside myself with his serious surprises. Questions like how I should chart my future and how I will live as a single woman take up whole days. I’m struggling with identity, self-doubts and fear. Maybe this is why Buddhism with its focus on the present and the illusion of control has sparked my interest of late. So, when I heard that Thich Nhat Hahn would be in New York, I signed up. But before I left, I found the carved ivory Buddha necklace my father sent years before and put it on for the sake of a needed talisman.
Outside the train’s window, the Erie Canal floats in the opposite direction from us. We pass names of Dutch remains like Amsterdam, Cobleskill, Voorheesville and Kinderhook. Yellow bars of sun stretch across this new season of autumn while honking geese head south through the Hudson Valley. While I listen to the clack of wheels, I think of a Dutch ancestor of mine who came here in the 1600s and walked this very landscape.
My sister, the family genealogist, told me Gulliam Bertholf came to America as a Dutch Reformed Church missionary, and later became the chief church minister in this part of the world. I imagine that in order to do this he had to give up a great deal, had to make life-altering leaps from his life in Holland. When he looked across the North Sea, what made him head for foreign shores? Was it done hastily, or did he think about it for years beforehand? Maybe, like my husband, he was seeking happiness, happiness and a chance at something new, though I will never know. All the facts my sister told me about Gulliam’s life are interesting, but it’s the transitions he made in his life that absorb my attention now, his letting go of one world for another. I wish I could talk with him and learn how he managed.
The issues of finding a new home, creating a new life, and letting go of a long marriage all seem insurmountable as I recall when my husband first told me about “the other woman.” As the baffling, shocking words came out of his mouth, I looked across our bedroom at the framed photographs of our sons, the green amulet on the wall for protection, his dresser and mine. I noticed the Tibetan carpet we had taken months to pick out. The twin lamps and black iron bed. The blue quilt I made. I pounded my hands on his chest and screamed at him in a loud panic. Then, before I knew it, I was running down our street as fast as I could, leaning my back against a nearby church wall, rocking back and forth like a child in great distress. For me, the whole world had just collapsed. All I could say at that moment was, this should not be happening.
But it was happening, even with my thoughts of the past dropped into a big hole as though it didn’t matter. “I’m surprised you are so upset,” he said later as he took his books off the shelf and packed them in a box. I wanted to say, Our small civilization is ending. I am disoriented. Where are you? But I was too traumatized to say any of this just yet. He wanted a divorce and to sell our house. I still wore my wedding ring. He was no longer wearing his. A foreign language swung back and forth between us.
This life as a wife in this house on this street in this century has torn asunder. Shreds of memories and photographs are piled into suitcases now with the question of who gets this and who gets that. It is all more than I can bear some days as I sit on the porch steps watching children come home from school down the block. Some of them are skipping. Some are holding hands with friends. I cry as I think of this republic we once called family and how it will soon be two republics with our house sold to strangers. Will these two separate states resemble each other at all? These questions plague me as I watch the geese cover the sky in V’s out the train’s window.
I can’t figure out where the past goes. When it is no longer connected to the present, then what’s in that gap of time? I remember once talking to a rabbi decades ago when I was thinking of converting for the sake of my marriage and asked him if I had to erase my past in order to rework my spiritual life. He said we take with us who we were, who we are, what we have learned. “That never goes away,” the rabbi said. Somehow back then it made the religious transition from Protestant to Jew easier, less black and white, more of a fold than a tear.
Maybe this trip to New York could be itself the beginning of something new. Maybe it’s the train ride itself, the choice of listening to a Buddhist monk that I’ve read, or going off by myself that might be the new ground. In my marriage with children and a husband and so much to do with the house and our life there, it was difficult to get away for such things. Especially to something that only interested me. The lack of choice, the competition for who was having the most fun, peeks out unescorted like a thread going backward to the past and then forward to the future. I’m not sure what to do with that thread.
I also wonder what Gulliam would have thought about this phrase from Jeremiah, the so-called weeping prophet, I recently came across: The summer is over, the harvest has ended, and we are not saved. He knew misery when everything appeared formidable, though he still brought confidence for the future to the Jewish people. I close my eyes and fall asleep while the train moves on. Devotion, change and letting go are at the heart of this story. That is the story itself. Love, labor, loss. I add relinquish to the list as the expanse of time spins on and pays tribute to our lives. Or not. In my agitated state, I keep contemplating what it means to lose, as if predictability is safety. In old English, to lose is to perish, to fail. But Thich Nhat Hahn suggests otherwise. “Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness,” he writes. I ponder that possibility, that new way of looking at the world.
When I open my eyes, the conductor arrives to punch my ticket. The world outside the train leapfrogs along the shoals of the Hudson River. I see wisps of clouds and swaying branches as I imagine Gulliam walking this same landscape centuries ago. In other words, sharing this same space, though in different times. It’s history emanating from a physical place. I reach up to touch the Buddha again, holding it tight in my hand for comfort. At the same time, I study the piles of decaying logs, half in the river and half out. The images arrange themselves like a Dutch still life painting, the kind Gulliam’s church once forbade, the kind I seek out in museums. Though I can’t go back and see him folded over his sermon or lesson plans, I can imagine him crossing the Hudson on a perilous passage to satisfy people’s thirst for religion because his written story of navigating choppy waters in a small boat at the Tappan Zee—the very place where I am now—remains in archives, registered forever.
When we get closer to the city, I see a bridge in the distance. The last leaves on the maple trees near the shore have fallen. I try to capture the slant of light casting its way through a somber sky. Somewhere in my body I am registering dead stars, this slow dying of the light, the earth continuing to turn on its axis at the same time.
The next day when I finally get to the theater on a cross-town bus, I see Thich Nhat Hahn from a distance because I’m sitting in the way back. I begin to cry. I realize how hard I’ve worked to get here, letting myself be open enough to get on that train even while grief still takes up far too much space in my body. But still I insist on living. Something about that makes me feel tender towards my unstable self. I clutch my necklace, recalling my father wearing a Buddha around his neck when he became interested in the monks who found beauty even in the middle of an ugly war.
“Fear keeps us focused on the past and worried about the future,” Thich Nhat Hahn says. I think he’s talking about the grasp for a guaranteed, measurable future I’ve been seeking for a long while now, the assurance of security. It’s that simple on one hand, and that complicated on the other. Maybe he’s saying that I have to draw a circle around today. That’s all any of us have. I must, as Gulliam once did, navigate the waters of change with their swift currents and unpredictable direction.
Halfway through the day, Thich Nhat Hahn describes walking meditation, and then explains to the large, gathered group that we will practice this, walking down Broadway, one mindful step at a time. He talks about connection to the earth with our bodies. “You will find solidity with the earth,” he says. “Mother Earth is within you.” Something about that thought comforts me, feels like a brand-new way to look at life. The theater slowly empties, and the group walks step by slow step on Broadway’s wide sidewalk. Taxis and buses and motorcycles pass us by with their New York City loudness. Onlookers stare at us in wonder. A CBS cameraman holds a large camera on his shoulder as he walks alongside us. I get as close as I can behind this small monk with a jacket over his maroon robe, his knitted cap tight on his head, a space between his two front teeth. Be the peace, he has told us. One small step at a time.
At the end of the day, I buy a calligraphy painting done on rice paper painted by Thich Nhat Hahn. With a brush and ink he has written the words: I have arrived. I am home. At first I think I don’t want to be one of those tourists here buying souvenirs, but then I re-realize I need these words. In my marriage such a thing would have been seen as useless and silly, and my husband’s control would have stopped me from getting what I wanted. But now I reach into my purse and hand over the money to a Buddhist nun behind the table. I am smiling as I return to my seat with his art.
I get the calligraphy framed when I return home and then hang it on the wall of my small apartment. It’s the first thing I see when I open the door. Each time I walk in, I look up at the words and they console me. They ground me to this place and get me to take a deep breath before I proceed further.
At a Yom Kippur service that month as I look down from the synagogue’s balcony that overlooks a crowd of families, I can’t help but notice husbands with their arms around their wives. Fasting has made me voraciously hungry as my breath slips away, its sound like a small stale whisper. For a moment, I feel angels all around—as cliché as that sounds—then I feel the terror of being alive. When the cantor dressed in a white robe, otherwise used for weddings, chants the ancient melancholic notes of loss and forgiveness, I see a wave of grief across the congregation like a solid mist of tears. The liturgical prayer with its haunting music of Kol Nidre penetrates my bones as it asks for all transgressions to be forgiven. At the same time, certainty peels away from my ribs.
As my hunger grows and my arguments with life multiply, Yitzkor, the service for the dead, begins. Suddenly and without any prior thought or plan, I feel my right hand reach over to my left, and I quietly take off my wedding ring. I study its three shades of gold twisted together, meant once as a metaphor for our braided lives. I hold it in my hand for a long while as the rabbi continues to chant prayers, then I place the ring gently in my pocket. Against the backdrop of the rabbi lying prone before the altar with all the humility he can find, I realize I am not the first, nor the last, to know sorrow with its forceful and ancient expression. There are no fairy tale promises for any of us.
On my way home I pause in the sunshine with its dappled light coming through transfigured trees. The blue sky mocks the language of endings as I turn the key in my car door, thinking about the sukkah we used to build at this time each fall right after Yom Kippur was over, a reminder of life as an impermanent home. We hung fruit from the makeshift roof and taped the children’s artwork on the thrown-together walls. Each year we would sit faithfully eating our meals inside the temporary hut we made. We looked through the pine branches above us, trying to embrace the stars.
When I get home, I hang up my coat in the hall closet, then turn to sit on the couch. But before I do, I study Thich Nhat Hahn’s framed calligraphy on the wall. Even though I realize there are no guarantees about my future, no solid safety net, nothing wrapped up or solved, I know I am home.