Sometimes I think my life is just like anyone else’s – a flowing river of experiences: opportunities offered and opportunities missed, countless joys and countless sufferings, heartbreaks, delights and surprises. A very ordinary life, perhaps.
Other times I wonder how I came into this particular, and particularly strange, life: living in a foreign land, often seemingly directionless, finding new and unexpected opportunities to stretch myself, to meet suffering at its most immediate level, to enter into relationship with people and animals who have lived a very different experience than my own. And yet, somehow, to be blessed with the gift of connection, the ability to be in direct, personal relationship and to live in love with this community I encounter every day, to flow alongside joys and sufferings I scarcely would have known existed.
One of these opportunities presents itself to me in the form of four young children – also strangers in a strange land – who, through a series of turns in that same river, ended up in this dusty town without any form of consistent parenting or guardianship. Having these kids in my life has, in many ways, taught me more about resiliency, human connection, unconditional love and new perspectives than any of the life lessons that have been pounding at the shores of my heart for a long time now.
These kids spend a lot of time at my house and, like most of the kids I know, relish the opportunity to be use any sort of device – a computer, a tablet, an iphone. But what’s different is that when these kids grab my phone, or whatever piece of technology happens to be available, they go straight to youtube and put on the same song, over and over.
Hello darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again.
They play this song to self-soothe, to fall asleep, to ground. They sing these first lines often, and especially when something seems sad to them – a dog on the street who has been hurt, another child crying, they will look up at me and sing softly, “Hello darkness my old friend.”
A week or so ago, they were at my house making art. There were heart shaped cardboard boxes, glue sticks, paints, artisanal papers, and bottles of Modge Podge sealer spread out all over the floor. At some point, one of the boys said, “Can we listen to that song?”
I knew right away which song they wanted. I set up the speaker and scrolled through youtube. I found the Live in Central Park version, a concert that brought me back to my youth when, at 15 years old, I took the bus into the city and along with 500,000 other people, sat mesmerized by Simon and Garfunkel, their capacity for emotional connection making us all feel as if they were singing to each one of us individually.
As the song started, at first the kids got very quiet, painting their boxes, choosing the colored paper for their collaging, seemingly focusing deeply inward. After the first verse, one of the boys said, “This song makes me sad, because it makes me think of your sister.” I smiled and closed my eyes for a moment. My sister. My beautiful, beloved sister, who died – and even as I write that seems completely unreal – only a few months earlier. “Yeah,” said another of the boys, “It makes me sad too. I feel so sad for your sister. You must miss her so much,” he paused, “I know it’s not the same, but it’s like how I miss my dad.” Their dad has not died, yet he is absent from their lives – a half a world away – having left one day in a taxi saying he would return and never coming back. Everyone sat quiet for a few more moments, gluing, painting, cutting. Then the littlest one – a girl of just six years – said again, “I feel really sad when I hear this song, because of your sister. It makes me so sad.” We sat again.
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
Suddenly, she began to cry, at first weeping, a quiet flow of tears, that turned quickly into a rushing roar of sobs. I gathered her up in my arms and sat on the couch with her, holding and rocking her as she cried. “I miss your sister,” she began – although she had never met Erin – and then her refrain changed, “I just miss my dad so much,” she repeated, her tiny frame heaving and sobbing in my arms.
It was a familiar feeling.
I was transported back in time to when I was nine years old and sitting in the living room of our family home. We had a large living room with a long couch with some kind of stripes on it. I know my mom was there, but there might have also been others of my six siblings and maybe my dad. We were listening to Cat Stevens on the record player as we often did – my mom was a huge fan. At one point the song Sad Lisa came on.
She hangs her head and cries on my shirt
She must be hurt very badly
Tell me what’s making you sad, Li?
Open your door, don’t hide in the dark
You’re lost in the dark, you can trust me
‘Cause you know that’s how it must be
Lisa Lisa, sad Lisa Lisa
I remember clearly being flooded with my own feeling of sadness and beginning to cry. I couldn’t even identify why, I just somehow, at nine, identified with a profound sense of despair and frustration. My mom gathered me up in her arms, and just like I held my little friend, my mom held and rocked me as I sobbed in her arms.
I think sometimes there are specific precipitating events that cause our very foundations to shake and erode, but that there also times, for many of us, when everything, all the suffering, all the sadness, that which is ours and that which is not, overwhelms us and we feel crushed under its unbearable weight. When I was nine – at least in that memory – I have no recollection of anything specific, although there were certainly tumultuous times in our household. When my little friend was tumbled by that great wave of emotion, the vision that was “softly creeping,” it was the thought of my sister, of my sadness, that unleashed the deeper sadness that “echoed in the wells” of her own silence.
I have invoked this Charles Bukowski poem many times before, and I feel its depth and authenticity again now:
each man must realize
That it can all disappear very
The cat, the woman, the job,
The front tire,
The bed, the walls, the
Room; all our necessities
Rest on foundations of sand –
And any given cause,
No matter how unrelated:
The death of a boy in Hong Kong
Or a blizzard in Omaha…
Can serve as your undoing.
All your chinaware crashing to the
Kitchen floor, your girl will enter
And you’ll be standing, drunk,
In the center of it and she’ll ask:
My god, what’s the matter?
And you’ll answer: I don’t know,
I don’t know…
Pull a String, a Puppet Moves, Charles Bukowski: Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame
In my case now, it is the death of my sister, not a boy in Hong Kong that has served as my undoing. It is the disconnect with my own family and the abusive manipulations of my nephew’s unstable father, not a blizzard in Omaha, that have left me standing in my kitchen with chinaware crashing around me. It is the intense feeling of loneliness and isolation that leaves me standing, yes, sometimes drunk, in the center of it all, and yet still I have that feeling of “I don’t know, I don’t know,” just as I did when I was nine and just as my little six year old friend appeared to have when she crawled into my lap, crying. In her case, she had, in fact, quite literally lost the car, the front tire, the bed, the walls, the room, and yet in that moment, who knew which, if any of those particular things brought her to that place of profound sadness that in that moment she associated with the death of my sister…….Hello Darkness, my old friend.
But this siren call to darkness reminds me of another poem – this one by the Sufi poet Hafiz, that has also very much shaped my life and world view.
The birds’ favorite songs
You do not hear,
For their most flamboyant music takes place
When their wings are stretched
Above the trees
And they are smoking the opium
Of pure freedom.
It is healthy for the prisoner
To have faith
That one day he will again move about
Wherever he wants,
Feel the wondrous grit of life –
Find all wounds, debts stamped canceled,
I once asked a bird,
“How is it that you fly in this gravity
She Responded, Hafiz, The Gift (translation)
Love is what lifts us. But does it really rest on foundations of sand? Is it really that easily disturbed or destroyed? Or is just that we don’t spend enough time reinforcing our foundations? Do we spend too much time in the silence of our own fears and insecurities, our own depression or judgement, our single righteous view? And if we could stabilize and fortify our foundations, how would we do that?
I believe, always, that the answer is community and connection. That we learn to talk, we learn to reach and move toward one another, to recognize this deep suffering in the other – whether it can be named and described or whether it is simply a stirring, restless feeling of loneliness and hurt. As I turn towards these four hungry children, and they turn toward me, I see our shared humanity, I see them as being a part of me, their joy is my joy, their suffering is my suffering, together, flying in this gravity of darkness, we lift each other through love. But the only way we can do that is to be vulnerable, to share our fears and our sadness, to reach out to another, with the deep deep trust that we will be gathered up and held.
“Fools, ” said I, “[We} do not know
Silence, like a cancer, grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”
And so, again, and maybe forever, I return to the value of Samarya – a community that was built on open minds and open hearts, on open communication and an orientation toward inclusion and forgiveness. Like any community, Samarya has endured trials, mistakes, hurt feelings and interpersonal conflict, but unlike many communities, none of those missteps has broken the feeling of love and connection to an extent that, Gracias a Dios, has served as its undoing.
In fact, on our very last Samarya Yoga teacher training in September, one of the things that lifted me out of the gravity of darkness of knowing that my sister’s death was imminent, was the repeated call to community – to Samarya community specifically – that seemed to dominate so many of the conversations with faculty, staff and students alike. We had many long, uplifting conversations about the concept of Samarya – outside of me, outside of the physical center in Seattle – a community that stands on its own foundation of shared vocabulary, shared experience and a profound commitment to creating experiences of connection that allow for the natural and inevitable discord of lots of people trying to work together to build something powerful and enduring.
My sister died exactly two weeks after the end of that training. Three days after that, we held a memorial for her on the island where she lived and worked. While there were so many people there, from so many different places in her life, what touched me the most was Samarya – this community that showed up to support me, to gather me up, to remind me that those foundations were not made of sand, but of a powerful, active expression of pure love.
It is the strength of that community that also gives me the strength to build and expand on that foundation, to be the community for these children, to let them know that love will always lift them, and that the foundation is much more stable than sand, to assure them that they, just like I, can have faith that one day they will again move about wherever they want, feeling the wondrous grit of life. I am holding on to that faith with all I got.
In community we will heal. In Samarya, we will heal. With love, we will be lifted. My dream is that “the vision that was planted in my brain, still remains,” and that we can continue to grow our community, based in the 18 years of Samarya that we have co-created – that by talking, connecting, making the effort, lifting each other up and learning together, we can keep ignited in our hearts and minds an unwavering commitment to real community, shared values and an actionable desire to keep our eyes, hearts, minds and arms open. That we can recognize, indeed, that the “words of the prophets are written on the subway walls And tenement halls,” that the ones who are suffering the most – these children, people in bereavement, people who are isolated, marginalized, or excluded in any way – may also have the most to teach us.
I welcome your responses and your voices, I welcome every effort to work together to build and strengthen our Samarya community – as a vision, rather than a person or a place, to keep alive a unique experience and opportunity to create social change through connection. Let’s be together soon.
We are all in this together.