A dagger and a boule of bread have been placed on the table. The room is unusually quiet; this is not the standard set-up and it does not go unnoticed. When it’s time, we hear the sharp, clip clip clip as Mildred Bensmiller’s practical, medium-heel pumps step purposefully down the old staircase, and quickly cover the short distance into the classroom.
Striding to the table she picks up the dagger and stabs it into the bread. And then looks directly at me, shooting me a quick eyebrow raise with a flick of a smile twitching her lip. We know, she is saying.
I don’t know! I don’t know what you mean at all! I almost never do when you shoot me those looks! I mean never, I never do. I only have the vaguest notion if I have any notion. And I don’t know why you have chosen me to look at. I only know that the world is a very big, very vast place one can lose grip of and I JUST WANT SOMEONE TO TELL ME HOW IT IS so I won’t slide off.
Dad, for instance, just tell me: do you (i.e., we) believe in God?
This has been a big befuddler. He was a minister for the first 4 years of my life — old enough for me to remember once sitting in the front pew (oddly by myself) watching him preach — and yet, suspiciously, nothing was ever said, not truly declared over the years about actual belief regarding this rather bizarre idea of a heavenly father. He did get out of the God business by the time I was 5, which might have led me to assume non-believer if he’d never looked back, but we were still church-goers long after he’d gone into higher education. And the older I got, the more things didn’t add up. For one, my father didn’t seem like a pray-er. In fact, believing in God seemed a little too unfounded and possibly emotional for such a highly reason-based man. For two, though we were church-goers, the choir seemed like it could be the big draw for both my parents. But a big enough draw to sing songs in praise of someone so iffy when there is a vast menu of other songs that can be sung?
So I confronted him at various points, trying to nail this down once and for all: Yes or no, do you believe? Oh, the artful dodging. Every few decades I’d try again. Well, do you or don’t you?
And then, just mere weeks ago while sitting in the Target Starbucks — Mom, Dad and me, having our weekly Saturday coffee and a hoot of a good time talking about this very story I had just begun to formulate, which Dad, of course, immediately got on board with, always ready to dive deep and work an idea — it hit me: this is it. Having this very discussion about my need to nail things down…this is the day it would make perfect sense for Dad to settle the business of belief. There would be some poetry to this which is maybe what he was waiting for. At age 56 I would finally know where things stood.
“So….speaking of nailing things down…God.” I raise my eyebrows.
I move on. I have no real idea where this investigation into my need to have things spelled out is going to take me. As it turns out, the story that follows is what happens when you cross a meaning seeker with a scaredy-cat. There’s a sideways feel to it I think, which a meaning-seeking scaredy- cat may explain. So here we go. You’re coming with me. I’m not going in there alone.
Very soon into my investigation of this yearning, I’m visited repeatedly by an image of my dear friend and former boss, Nancy, who fluidly rolled from being a graphic designer in the healthcare industry to running the whole marketing and public relations operation for Maine’s second largest hospital system. In my estimation she’s someone who always knows what’s what, allowing her great freedom to move about the world with grounded confidence. So when we made national news after a troubled woman, faking a third pregnancy to throw off her friends and family, managed to walk off with one of our babies from the nursery, Nancy was direct and honest in her responses to the media.
“How did you know what to say,” I asked, dumbfounded by her honesty and in awe of her aplomb. “You mean it’s okay to be straight up in a situation like this?” assuming this is where spin comes in. Not that I would know how to spin.
“What else is there to say but the truth?” she said, looking at me, perplexed.
I study how clear this is to her while in my mind there are so very many variations of what could be true. How do some people just know which one to pick?
I felt alien in my absence of knowing, my otherness, like my friend’s 3-year-old son Henry appeared to the upscale neighborhood lady watching in disbelief as he climbed out of their community swimming pool wearing:
- His sister’s hand-me-down swimming suit with a built-in inner-tube flotation device,
- water wings for double protection against drowning,
- a snorkel, and
- a face mask pulling his mouth up in a way that exposed his top gums.
My friend relayed the story with utter amusement, describing the “What is that?” look of horror building on the lady’s face as Henry emerged from the pool like a mutant — or perhaps, worse, an unwelcome exhibition reflecting everything about ourselves we would rather not have come crawling out of the public pool.
I felt like that, and also just as untrusting of this watery world, like I will only agree to dip in if I’m fully suited up with knowledge, with flotation devices, and most importantly, with escape hatches. That is how I am. I need protection because I really don’t want to go in the water. But if I must, where are the water wings? Where is the air bladder to stitch to my torso?
My mind is racing with how themes of this dis-ease are manifest across my life. A conversation with Kim, my neighbor from 30 years ago, springs to mind. We’re talking about childbirth, specifically the options for getting the job done. She recalls her childbirth class and how the instructor set the stage, letting the class know they would primarily focus on the vaginal delivery route then wrap up with discussion of cesarean section as the possible other way things could go.
“What’s option 3?” Kim had shouted out. I could not agree more. I don’t want either. They are both shit shows.
And right there is the problem. There is just so much awfulness to what we have to go through or what we might have to go through in this life. It’s petrifying. And I just can’t believe how willing people are to do it, screw the unknown. Take The Legendary Boundary Waters Trip, a week-long canoeing expedition my friends and I took in our college days, paddling our way deeper and deeper into isolation, every day of paddling taking us another day further away from civilization and access to lifesaving devices.
Jeff, our expedition leader, kept talking about the best part of the whole trip being at the farthest, most remote point of our journey, a full 3 days of paddling from any hospital. Awaiting us was a 40-foot cliff we would leap off, a drop from so high it was imperative to wear sneakers to help moderate the pain experienced by the violence of slamming into the water.
No. No I will not. I sat in the canoe 40 feet below by myself, collecting my friends one-by-one as they threw themselves over the edge into the great unknown.
Still 2 days out as we paddle our way back, in a yearning-driven delusion for solid ground and luxuries, I hear highway sounds and see a vision of a vending machine floating on the horizon. Please, vending machine, I have money. Just tell me I’m back on sold ground and am safe & done with this and I’ll buy something.
That sounds made up, and also stupid, but it’s not. Not made up, anyway.
Writing this all out I suddenly feel like an idiot. I’m hearing a soft, high Jim Gaffigan-like voice inside every reader’s head making comments as they walk with me along my trail of fear and ignorance. She sounds like a baby. She doesn’t know anything at all! How can she not know anything? Didn’t she say she is 56 years old?
On the trail, my mind races with images of all the people out there walking around with heads packed with important knowledge, people who just know how to navigate, who are unconfused and unafraid, who don’t appear to be sliding off the face of the earth with all the boundless unknowns. I hear Ed in my head, my second husband, saying “I figured it out,” when I questioned him about how, to my utter amazement, he knew how to do something.
Ohhhhh. So that’s how it works. We figure it out. Another clue, instantly identifiable by the weird, burn-into-my-mind thing all my clues do when they present, (which is why I’m able to dredge up the most mundane of memories).
Even my dear friend Jani’s 7th freshman English student knew about figuring it out, demonstrated by the great wealth of undocumented facts he provided in his research paper. When Jani questioned where he got this information, he tapped the side of his head as if to say, it’s all right in there. That and so much more.
Sometime in my late 30s the great yawning hole of un-gotten knowledge got to me. I developed an intense longing to be an expert of one small thing. It didn’t matter how tiny and minuscule this expertise might be. I didn’t even care if I cared about topic. I could be the expert of that ant or this paperclip or some crumb on the floor, but I would know everything there was to know about it, that one thing. This solid knowledge would anchor me. If people wanted to know about this crumb, there I would be, right in the directory.
The directory of knowledge. Now that’s something to hold onto.
The Buddhists seem to get this need to know, judging from a line in a version of one of their metta meditations, a loving kindness blessing first expressed for oneself and then all others. These blessings are comprised of a list of wishes like may I be happy, may I be free of pain, etc., and then followed by may you be happy, may you be free of pain, etc. The particular version that got my attention included this wish:
May I not die confused.
Exactly. I would really prefer not to live confused, either, a process that would be a whole lot more efficient if we could all just cut to the chase and be direct about a few things.
Now a full three weeks into drafting this story which is taking forever, I ask my partner, Gary, to read it. I want to see where it looks like I’m going through someone else’s eyes, and he’s the kind of guy who can wrap his head around something and immediately boil it down. What does he think? It takes him two seconds to formulate his thoughts.
“There are four types of people”:
- The people who know or think they know.
- The people who don’t care.
- The people who are searching.
- And the people who don’t know anything.”
“Well, I’m obviously the one who’s searching,” I say. “All I do is search. What about you?”
No hesitation. “I don’t know a thing,” he says.
Of course. I should have known. For Gary, the fact of our ultimate and universal ignorance is a firmly held philosophy. The only saving grace is knowing it.
Once again, one more person very clear on something.
Back on the trail, my head is on fire as more and more connections bubble up. Out on a walk I hear a voice in my head, a sing-song voice chanting,
I’ll tell you why.
The inflection is coming over so clearly, so specifically: “Why?” is ridiculously drawn out, like a slide whistle going from bottom to top. “I’ll tell you why” comes out absurdly exaggerated, enunciated theatrically — unwarranted pathos manufactured for a couple of plain words. Grandstanding to the extreme.
It’s all so familiar, so utterly familiar. Where on earth is this coming from? And then, traveling through decades, it hits me: this is a vocal warm-up we used to do before play performances in college to loosen our range and limber our tongue. It has followed me for 35 years to alight upon my head now, knowing the time has come.
Yes! Exactly! my heart screams. Tell me why!!! That’s what I’ve been asking for!
But it doesn’t follow through. There’s more to this warm-up but I can’t get it. It’s occupying my whole mind. What? What is it you’re going to tell me? I’m locked on this now, wracking my brain to remember how the rest of the ditty goes.
I try for days and it just won’t come. I decide I will track down Mr. File, my theatre professor. After a mere 2 days of investigative work I’m in time-warp email conversations with him. He knows very well what I’m talking about and, just like that, he fills in the blanks:
I know men in the ranks
who will stay in the ranks.
I’ll tell you why.
Simply because they haven’t the ability
to get things done.
Oh god, the relief. There it is, recovered from the ether. A little bit of truthful nonsense to open up our full vocal and emotive range. Thank you. Thank you for telling me.
But not only do I get the dogged Why answered, Mr. File engages, getting what I’m up to with The Organization Project. He notes how I’m “picking locks…listening for tumblers to fall in place,” as he describes it. He comments about what is seen and unseen in the looks Mrs. Bensmiller would throw my way, what is literal and what is figurative. Tangible and intangible. Rational and emotional. Factual and figurative, all stretching our ability to link the “facts to the figures” of life, and draw meaning.
Of course! How had I lost track of that! And I also see something else in this reminder of the all-encompassing, all-directional sweep of the low to high, left to right, front to back of life: an apt round-up of the “fact” of my scared, down-to-earth and also practical side responsible for getting this book written, partnered with the “figure” of my brave, high-flying poetic side telling the story.
I take this all in and chew on it…What is there and known. What is not there but sensed. How they work together.
He goes on to muse that perhaps Mrs. Bensmiller wasn’t saying, “You and me, we know,” with her raised eyebrows. Maybe she was saying something more along the lines of “I don’t know it all either, but, you and me, we are curious.”
I hadn’t thought of it that way. I hadn’t considered that perhaps Mrs. Bensmiller, the expert on Shakespeare, and so much more, including how to bake a batch of cookies in the blink of an eye, write a killer poem, blow minds, grow prize-winning roses, pick lipstick, find the weirdest car ever to drive, and look out a window like a soul who has seen things…I hadn’t considered that Mrs. Bensmiller might not have it all entirely nailed down. That she might be asking me, “What will we make of this loaf of bread?”
After all, babies aren’t free. They don’t just get handed over. We labor everyday to bring them to light. Baby after baby, brand new unmet babies each and every day.
A few days later I wake up in the middle of the night. In this half-wake state I hear her voice, Mrs. Bensmiller’s, traveling from beyond through the ether, whispering,
Come with me,
We shall see what we shall see…
The boule, the knife, the smile…into the mystery we go.
The dagger in my bread.
The after story
Back at the Target Starbucks, I let Dad know I’m finishing up this piece which I’ll be passing by him soon in draft form as a courtesy since he has a role in this story, having to do with his refusal to tell me whether he believes in God. I’ve given up on that, I tell him. But then suddenly I decide to ask, instead, why he won’t answer.
“Because it’s not the right question.” His response was immediate, like he’s sat on that knowledge for 40 years. “If it’s deemed to be not the right question, why would you answer? What could you possibly say to stir reflection? The question wants to be taken off the hook and to go onto something else.”
That’s precisely what he said. I can attest for the word-for-word integrity of this quote because I wrote it down on a napkin with a pen borrowed from him — interrupting ever so briefly to get it — as soon as the words began coming out of his mouth, my head getting bigger and bigger with each word as the truth of it all became clear.
“Yes, I can see that,” I say. “The right question is everything.” I think about lock picking and door opening. “And I can see now that the better question might have been, ‘Why did you get into the ministry in the first place?'”
But hang on. Wait a darn minute. Something else occurs to me.
“At the same time,” I say, ” you could have done what politicians do and answer the question you wanted to be asked. Or even redirect with the right question such as…’Why is it so important to you to know?'”
Dad thinks a second then nods. “Yes, that’s true.”
There’s a kind of weird pause between us, a nod to the resolution of a 40-year long stand-off. And, simple as that, it’s over.
Over, that is, except for one final thing on the God front.
Dad. Here’s how it is for me. The upshot is I’ve gone the spiritual route. A dabbler in this and that. And what I don’t find to save my soul somewhere out there in books, random traditions not of my culture, movies, or on the street — frankly, anywhere at all — I make up. It’s God with a small “g” for me. That’s what I’ve figured out.
I know. Spirituality almost certainly doesn’t rank high in your book — possibly not even to be regarded as a real thing based on conversations we’ve had over the years. But there actually is one thing I feel quite certain of. I feel quite sure that fostering the pilgrimage is what you intended, were willing to take a chance on, even if it came to this.
Unless the eye catch fire,
the god will not be seen.
Unless the tongue catch fire,
the god will not be named.
Unless the heart catch fire,
the god will not be loved;
Unless the mind catch fire,
the god will not be known.
– Theodore Roszak
Where the Wasteland Ends
The stories in this blog are excerpts from my memoir, The Organization Project. While they are true to me and reflect how I see, I acknowledge there are multiple truths, including my own which change over time, even as the events themselves remain the same, whatever they were. What I make of an event 5 years out may not be what I make of it 10 years out or 50 years out.