This morning I went to the hospital to swallow radioactive tablets that, within hours, would reveal whether or not I have thyroid function. So far the news is not so good.
After leaving the hospital I couldn’t go home. Fortunately for me, my long suffering husband recently gave in to my years of yearning for a vintage Mercedes: I finally have one, and it is perfect. It is sleek and baby blue, it was made in Munich in 1979, it has chrome bumpers, a loud diesel engine that satisfyingly drowns out the sound of the original radio, and it was owned by only one woman, who I swear is my companion while I drive. She used to smoke. And lately I insist on having blood red manicured nails, which I have become convinced she also used to have. When I watch my fingers, thin and pale on the wide steering wheel, I am sure sometimes that they are her fingers.
My first stop was a vintage store on South Broadway. The shop was loaded to the ceiling with jackets from the ’60s, polyester dresses from the mid-1970’s, fur stoles and jumpsuits circa 1989. I touched almost every dress, looking at the labels, wondering where those stores were, somewhere far off in time and the mid-West; occasionally I spied a New York label and I imagined the woman who owned it: did her more sophisticated sister send it to her, a consolation for having to live in Denver in 1956? Or perhaps she herself was the sophisticate, and had to move out here with her husband after his company opened a new branch out West.
I bought a thin peach silk negligee top, which I will wear as a t-shirt, as we do these days. I bought it because of its softness and delicacy and sweetness, all things of which I am in such need at the moment, but also because I know that gentle fabric used to live on another woman’s skin. I want to feel close, to bring someone out of time, to press against my own ailing flesh.
In the darkened early evening, I drove to a park, wrapped myself tight, and walked. Watching the fallen early-winter leaves at my feet, I suddenly felt the company of all the faded footsteps around me. Ahead of me was a middle aged woman, walking cautiously toward a low-lit avenue. I saw her fear, her hesitation, as if it were my own; I did not want to fix it though, I just wanted to be present. For her. For fear itself.
All the sickness, all the suffering, all the love and joy and loss and all the countless bodies living or long dead – it all came to me as if the very earth rang with sound and song. This is tonglen, I thought. This is the practice of tonglen.
Tonglen is a Tibetan Buddhist practice, and it originates from a phrase meaning roughly “giving and taking.” The most eminent teacher of tonglen practice in the West is probably Pema Chodron, who learned it from her root teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
The practice is stunningly simple, and like most simple things, such as standing up straight or being kind, it is also almost impossible to accomplish with consistency and skill. Essentially one breathes in the suffering, the soft wounded elements, of others. And upon breathing out, one offers strength, recognition, boundless love, or metta.
Such a gift it is, to be sick and to practice tonglen. Everyone is sick. All beings are in the process (for it is a process) of death, even my little baby daughter, the child named for dance and song and the stars themselves, even this being, so young, is following the pulse of time’s destruction and transformation.
Because I am ill, and therefore more aware of the great unwinding of my life, I was able this evening to stand effortlessly with the unwinding of all life. For many precious minutes I saw the not-me of me, saw instead just the patterns, and the similar patterns, like a cartouche repeated on an infinite tomb, in all beings. Open. For those minutes existence was open, and whatever essence that is killing the healthy cells of my body became the same essence that gave life to a love too grand to be my own.
Only once before have I felt this, but at the time I did not have a name for it. (Perhaps this made the experience more pure, the not-naming…but that is another topic.) I can access the memory as if in real time: on a cold, bright winter morning, several years ago just after Thanksgiving, I went to see a perinatologist to have my unborn twins examined. I was about twenty weeks along with them, and the visit was scheduled as just a routine.
At that visit we found out they were boys. We found out they were identical. And we found out they were dying. Three weeks later their hearts stopped, and so when I gave birth for the first time it was to death, to two deaths, or three if you count the part of me that died with them.
But at the moment I found out about their sickness, I opened. My husband and I went to a cafe. I was ravenous. I wanted chocolate, and pastry. I remember walking to the woman who took my order, and the lovely secret smile she gave to my enormous pregnant torso. I felt wildly alive, filled with a huge, celestial love, a goddess-like love that was part maternal, part erotic, part – the biggest part – beyond all language. Do the Germans call it Liebe?
After awhile the grief came and froze me in place, and then I was alone. Alone with my dead boys, who for a long time I was convinced were ghosts in the house with me. But before all that, in those moments of opening, I practiced the hardest practice, and it was those two little boys who brought me to it, just as, perhaps, this sickness guides me now: the road, the road, the road. And the staying open to its vistas.