Presently my life is a delicate honeycomb. It is composed of compartments of circumstances which I have meticulously arranged in order to make them perform in concert with one another. Work, school, internship, exercise, food, vacation time, sleep, relationships, art, income—each one rests on all the others gently, precariously.
But then there was a single moment of less-than-optimum attention, a slip of one nanoscale gear tooth, which threatened to send those carefully contrived components grinding against each other in a melee of desperate uncertainty.
It’s only a small mistake in my work schedule.
It’s only the keystone to the entire kingdom.
Step by step in the dark,
When my foot is not wet, it has found the stone.
I do not know how this is all going to work out—this is certain—but it doesn’t stop my mind from whipping out in all directions like a cartoon octopus learning to ice skate. Guanyin is here but she is floundering, countless confused hands thrashing about and the eye in each rolling in nystagmic ecstasy. Will I get enough hours at work? Will I lose my health insurance? Have I damaged my relationship with my supervisor, who I respect and admire? Does she hate me? Do I hate me? How will I survive this colossal fuckup?
I had dreamed the future with such eloquence, but now I’m watching the gossamer filaments of my certainty hiss and crackle as they collapse.
Blaming emerges as a possible navigation method. It offers a simple storyline, something to hold things together. There is a momentary feeling of exhilaration. I am rising, but these sudden wings feel chintzy.
First, this fuckup is someone else’s fault: The world is chaotic and I succeeded in bringing it into focus, but in the end I was betrayed by someone else’s incompetence. This is a well-ordered world, but as with most well-ordered worlds, inside it I feel angry and impotent. That environment is too extreme to support life and so I rocket to the opposite. Now it is my fault: I am narcissistic and careless and in my hubris, I have brought chaos and suffering on innocent people. This world makes sense too, and is very familiar, but living there makes me feel guilty and hopeless. I begin to settle into a dubious compromise: perhaps it is both our faults–a little bit hers, a little bit mine. I know that won’t do either, but at the time I cannot see a way out. Those very filaments of certainty that had once cradled the promise of a bright future are coming to life again, this time to bind me.
Days away, I am at work and my body feels sluggish. My eyelids hang heavy like plush velvet draperies. A lump has made its burrow halfway down my throat and the corners of my mouth plunge downward in a persistent frown. My breath is shallow and sometimes I wonder if it has disappeared altogether, fleeing the kaleidoscopic churning in my gut. My body knows it is adrift in foreign waters and yet my mind pores over familiar charts, hoping to stumble upon a friendly constellation.
I don’t much feel like eating but I know I’m hungry so I order a pizza. The nurse I am working with eggs me on, assuring me that I deserve the indulgence. The pizza fills me but also gives me heartburn. I go outside for a walk and it is cold, dark, and snowy-quiet. I convince myself for just long enough that this unease could be related to giving up smoking again, so I have a cigarette. I catch a buzz that’s frosted with shame. I peer up at stars through spare winter branches, chase the sweeping gaze of headlights, pursue a blinking jetliner.
They are all crystal clear and aloof.
That is not the thing that will save me. Nor that. Nor that.
I have 25 minutes left on my dinner break, so I grab my meditation cushion and take over an empty office. I can feel that the action is inside, so I feel fairly confident in giving up on reaching outward. I sit down, close my eyes. I gingerly tend the supernova that is whirling quietly inside me and my mind does the octopus thing again, this time flipping manically through its rolodex for a koan that will turn this shit into gold: scorn, stone crypts, an enlightened person in a well, branches of coral, crimson threads, mistakes on pilgrimage, spilled tea, rolled up blinds, standing on needles, wars, stone buddhas, clay buddhas, wooden buddhas, homeless people, the light, dogs with or without Buddha nature—they all fit and none of them offer a way out.
It is still night and somewhere inside this hard, dark fog, I begin to feel that my feet and the ground are negotiating, remembering me from the bottom up. It’s a conversation I’m not equipped to contribute to, so I gratefully surrender the helm. This brings the familiar twinge of relief as I begin to rediscover my powerlessness, our powerlessness, the glorious inevitability of things. All those doors to other versions of me and other ways that things might have worked out simply disappear, like scattering roaches in the sudden light. I do not know where they go to hide. I just feel the simplicity of my body, no longer an octopus, as it lolls gently, undulating with the deepest currents. I could stay here for a while.
(Photo credits: Egg Balancing Act: Joseph Janney Steinmetz, 1939)