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I donít want to be married anymore.
In daylight hours, I refused that thought, but at night it would consume me. What a catastrophe. How could I be such a criminal jerk as to proceed this deep into a marriage, only to leave it? Weíd only just bought this house a year ago. Hadnít I wanted this nice house? Hadnít I loved it? So why was I haunting its halls every night now, howling like Medea? Wasnít I proud of all weíd accumulatedóthe prestigious home in the Hudson Valley, the apartment in Manhattan, the eight phone lines, the friends and the picnics and the parties, the weekends spent roaming the aisles of some box-shaped superstore of our choice, buying ever more appliances on credit? I had actively participated in every moment of the creation of this lifeóso why did I feel like none of it resembled me? Why did I feel so overwhelmed with duty, tired of being the primary breadwinner and the housekeeper and the social coordinator and the dog-walker and the wife and the soon-to- be mother, andósomewhere in my stolen momentsóa writer ...?
I donít want to be married anymore.
My husband was sleeping in the other room, in our bed. I equal parts loved him and could not stand him. I couldnít wake him to share in my distressówhat would be the point? Heíd already been watching me fall apart for months now, watching me behave like a madwoman (we both agreed on that word), and I only exhausted him. We both knew there was something wrong with me, and heíd been losing patience with it. Weíd been fighting and crying, and we were weary in that way that only a couple whose marriage is collapsing can be weary. We had the eyes of refugees.
The many reasons I didnít want to be this manís wife anymore are too personal and too sad to share here. Much of it had to do with my problems, but a good portion of our troubles were related to his issues, as well. Thatís only natural; there are always two figures in a marriage, after allótwo votes, two opinions, two conflicting sets of decisions, desires and limitations. But I donít think itís appropriate for me to discuss his issues in my book. Nor would I ask anyone to believe that I am capable of reporting an unbiased version of our story, and therefore the chronicle of our marriageís failure will remain untold here. I also will not discuss here all the reasons why I did still want to be his wife, or all his wonderfulness, or why I loved him and why I had married him and why I was unable to imagine life without him. I wonít open any of that. Let it be sufficient to say that, on this night, he was still my lighthouse and my albatross in equal measure. The only thing more unthinkable than leaving was staying; the only thing more impossible than staying was leaving. I didnít want to destroy anything or anybody. I just wanted to slip quietly out the back door, without causing any fuss or consequences, and then not stop running until I reached Greenland.
This part of my story is not a happy one, I know. But I share it here because something was about to occur on that bathroom floor that would change forever the progression of my lifeóalmost like one of those crazy astronomical super-events when a planet flips over in outer space for no reason whatsoever, and its molten core shifts, relocating its poles and altering its shape radically, such that the whole mass of the planet suddenly becomes oblong instead of spherical. Something like that.
What happened was that I started to pray.
You knowólike, to God.
3 Now, this was a first for me. And since this is the first time I have introduced that loaded wordóGODóinto my book, and since this is a word which will appear many times again throughout these pages, it seems only fair that I pause here for a moment to explain exactly what I mean when I say that word, just so people can decide right away how offended they need to get.
Saving for later the argument about whether God exists at all (noóhereís a better idea: letís skip that argument completely), let me first explain why I use the word God, when I could just as easily use the words Jehovah, Allah, Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu or Zeus. Alternatively, I could call God ìThat,î which is how the ancient Sanskrit scriptures say it, and which I think comes close to the all-inclusive and unspeakable entity I have sometimes experienced. But that ìThatî feels impersonal to meóa thing, not a beingóand I myself cannot pray to a That. I need a proper name, in order to fully sense a personal attendance. For this same reason, when I pray, I do not address my prayers to The Universe, The Great Void, The Force, The Supreme Self, The Whole, The Creator, The Light, The Higher Power, or even the most poetic manifestation of Godís name, taken, I believe, from the Gnostic gospels: ìThe Shadow of the Turning.î
I have nothing against any of these terms. I feel they are all equal because they are all equally adequate and inadequate descriptions of the indescribable. But we each do need a functional name for this indescribability, and ìGodî is the name that feels the most warm to me, so thatís what I use. I should also confess that I generally refer to God as ìHim,î which doesnít bother me because, to my mind, itís just a convenient personalizing pronoun, not a precise anatomical description or a cause for revolution. Of course, I donít mind if people call God ìHer,î and I understand the urge to do so. Againóto me, these are both equal terms, equally adequate and inadequate. Though I do think the capitalization of either pronoun is a nice touch, a small politeness in the presence of the divine.
Culturally, though not theologically, Iím a Christian. I was born a Protestant of the white Anglo- Saxon persuasion. And while I do love that great teacher of peace who was called Jesus, and while I do reserve the right to ask myself in certain trying situations what indeed He would do, I canít swallow that one fixed rule of Christianity insisting that Christ is the only path to God. Strictly speaking, then, I cannot call myself a Christian. Most of the Christians I know accept my feelings on this with grace and open-mindedness. Then again, most of the Christians I know donít speak very strictly. To those who do speak (and think) strictly, all I can do here is offer my regrets for any hurt feelings and now excuse myself from their business.
Traditionally, I have responded to the transcendent mystics of all religions. I have always responded with breathless excitement to anyone who has ever said that God does not live in a dogmatic scripture or in a distant throne in the sky, but instead abides very close to us indeedó much closer than we can imagine, breathing right through our own hearts. I respond with gratitude to anyone who has ever voyaged to the center of that heart, and who has then returned to the world with a report for the rest of us that God is an experience of supreme love. In every religious tradition on earth, there have always been mystical saints and transcendents who report exactly this experience. Unfortunately many of them have ended up arrested and killed. Still, I think very highly of them.
In the end, what I have come to believe about God is simple. Itís like thisóI used to have this really great dog. She came from the pound. She was a mixture of about ten different breeds, but seemed to have inherited the finest features of them all. She was brown. When people asked me, ìWhat kind of dog is that?î I would always give the same answer: ìSheís a brown dog.î Similarly, when the question is raised, ìWhat kind of God do you believe in?î my answer is easy: ìI believe in a magnificent God.î
4 Of course, Iíve had a lot of time to formulate my opinions about divinity since that night on the bathroom floor when I spoke to God directly for the first time. In the middle of that dark November crisis, though, I was not interested in formulating my views on theology. I was interested only in saving my life. I had finally noticed that I seemed to have reached a state of hopeless and life-threatening despair, and it occurred to me that sometimes people in this state will approach God for help. I think Iíd read that in a book somewhere.
What I said to God through my gasping sobs was something like this: ìHello, God. How are you? Iím Liz. Itís nice to meet you.î
Thatís rightóI was speaking to the creator of the universe as though weíd just been introduced at a cocktail party. But we work with what we know in this life, and these are the words I always use at the beginning of a relationship. In fact, it was all I could do to stop myself from saying, ìIíve always been a big fan of your work ...î
ìIím sorry to bother you so late at night,î I continued. ìBut Iím in serious trouble. And Iím sorry I havenít ever spoken directly to you before, but I do hope I have always expressed ample gratitude for all the blessings that youíve given me in my life.î
This thought caused me to sob even harder. God waited me out. I pulled myself together enough to go on: ìI am not an expert at praying, as you know. But can you please help me? I am in desperate need of help. I donít know what to do. I need an answer. Please tell me what to do. Please tell me what to do. Please tell me what to do ...î
And so the prayer narrowed itself down to that simple entreatyóPlease tell me what to doó repeated again and again. I donít know how many times I begged. I only know that I begged like someone who was pleading for her life. And the crying went on forever.
Untilóquite abruptlyóit stopped.
Quite abruptly, I found that I was not crying anymore. Iíd stopped crying, in fact, in mid-sob. My misery had been completely vacuumed out of me. I lifted my forehead off the floor and sat up in surprise, wondering if I would see now some Great Being who had taken my weeping away. But nobody was there. I was just alone. But not really alone, either. I was surrounded by something I can only describe as a little pocket of silenceóa silence so rare that I didnít want to exhale, for fear of scaring it off. I was seamlessly still. I donít know when Iíd ever felt such stillness.
Then I heard a voice. Please donít be alarmedóit was not an Old Testament Hollywood Charlton Heston voice, nor was it a voice telling me I must build a baseball field in my backyard. It was merely my own voice, speaking from within my own self. But this was my voice as I had never heard it before. This was my voice, but perfectly wise, calm and compassionate. This was what my voice would sound like if Iíd only ever experienced love and certainty in my life. How can I describe the warmth of affection in that voice, as it gave me the answer that would forever seal my faith in the divine?
The voice said: Go back to bed, Liz.
It was so immediately clear that this was the only thing to do. I would not have accepted any other answer. I would not have trusted a great booming voice that said either: You Must Divorce Your Husband! or You Must Not Divorce Your Husband! Because thatís not true wisdom. True wisdom gives the only possible answer at any given moment, and that night, going back to bed was the only possible answer. Go back to bed, said this omniscient interior voice, because you donít need to know the final answer right now, at three oíclock in the morning on a Thursday in November. Go back to bed, because I love you. Go back to bed, because the only thing you need to do for now is get some rest and take good care of yourself until you do know the answer. Go back to bed so that, when the tempest comes, youíll be strong enough to deal with it. And the tempest is coming, dear one. Very soon. But not tonight. Therefore:
Go back to bed, Liz.
In a way, this little episode had all the hallmarks of a typical Christian conversion experienceó the dark night of the soul, the call for help, the responding voice, the sense of transformation. But I would not say that this was a religious conversion for me, not in that traditional manner of being born again or saved. Instead, I would call what happened that night the beginning of a religious conversation. The first words of an open and exploratory dialogue that would, ultimately, bring me very close to God, indeed.
If Iíd had any way of knowing that things wereóas Lily Tomlin once saidógoing to get a whole lot worse before they got worse, Iím not sure how well I would have slept that night. But seven very difficult months later, I did leave my husband. When I finally made that decision, I thought the worst of it was over. This only shows how little I knew about divorce.
There was once a cartoon in The New Yorker magazine. Two women talking, one saying to the other: ìIf you really want to get to know someone, you have to divorce him.î Of course, my experience was the opposite. I would say that if you really want to STOP knowing someone, you have to divorce him. Or her. Because this is what happened between me and my husband. I believe that we shocked each other by how swiftly we went from being the people who knew each other best in the world to being a pair of the most mutually incomprehensible strangers who ever lived. At the bottom of that strangeness was the abysmal fact that we were both doing something the other person would never have conceived possible; he never dreamed I would actually leave him, and I never in my wildest imagination thought he would make it so difficult for me to go.
It was my most sincere belief when I left my husband that we could settle our practical affairs in a few hours with a calculator, some common sense and a bit of goodwill toward the person weíd once loved. My initial suggestion was that we sell the house and divide all the assets fifty-fifty; it never occurred to me weíd proceed in any other way. He didnít find this suggestion fair. So I upped my offer, even suggesting this different kind of fifty-fifty split: What if he took all the assets and I took all the blame? But not even that offer would bring a settlement. Now I was at a loss. How do you negotiate once youíve offered everything? I could do nothing now but wait for his counterproposal. My guilt at having left him forbade me from thinking I should be allowed to keep even a dime of the money Iíd made in the last decade. Moreover, my newfound spirituality made it essential to me that we not battle. So this was my positionóI would neither defend myself from him, nor would I fight him. For the longest time, against the counsel of all who cared about me, I resisted even consulting a lawyer, because I considered even that to be an act of war. I wanted to be all Gandhi about this. I wanted to be all Nelson Mandela about this. Not realizing at the time that both Gandhi and Mandela were lawyers.
Months passed. My life hung in limbo as I waited to be released, waited to see what the terms would be. We were living separately (he had moved into our Manhattan apartment), but nothing was resolved. Bills piled up, careers stalled, the house fell into ruin and my husbandís silences were broken only by his occasional communications reminding me what a criminal jerk I was.
And then there was David.
All the complications and traumas of those ugly divorce years were multiplied by the drama of Davidóthe guy I fell in love with as I was taking leave of my marriage. Did I say that I ìfell in loveî with David? What I meant to say is that I dove out of my marriage and into Davidís arms exactly the same way a cartoon circus performer dives off a high platform and into a small cup of water, vanishing completely. I clung to David for escape from marriage as if he were the last helicopter pulling out of Saigon. I inflicted upon him my every hope for my salvation and happiness. And, yes, I did love him. But if I could think of a stronger word than ìdesperatelyî to describe how I loved David, I would use that word here, and desperate love is always the toughest way to do it.
I moved right in with David after I left my husband. He wasóisóa gorgeous young man. A born New Yorker, an actor and writer, with those brown liquid-center Italian eyes that have always (have I already mentioned this?) unstitched me. Street-smart, independent, vegetarian, foulmouthed, spiritual, seductive. A rebel poet-Yogi from Yonkers. Godís own sexy rookie shortstop. Bigger than life. Bigger than big. Or at least he was to me. The first time my best friend Susan heard me talking about him, she took one look at the high fever in my face and said to me, ìOh my God, baby, you are in so much trouble.î
David and I met because he was performing in a play based on short stories Iíd written. He was playing a character I had invented, which is somewhat telling. In desperate love, itís always like this, isnít it? In desperate love, we always invent the characters of our partners, demanding that they be what we need of them, and then feeling devastated when they refuse to perform the role we created in the first place.
But, oh, we had such a great time together during those early months when he was still my romantic hero and I was still his living dream. It was excitement and compatibility like Iíd never imagined. We invented our own language. We went on day trips and road trips. We hiked to the top of things, swam to the bottom of other things, planned the journeys across the world we would take together. We had more fun waiting in line together at the Department of Motor Vehicles than most couples have on their honeymoons. We gave each other the same nickname, so there would be no separation between us. We made goals, vows, promises and dinner together. He read books to me, and he did my laundry. (The first time that happened, I called Susan to report the marvel in astonishment, like Iíd just seen a camel using a pay phone. I said, ìA man just did my laundry! And he even hand-washed my delicates!î And she repeated: ìOh my God, baby, you are in so much trouble.î)
The first summer of Liz and David looked like the falling-in-love montage of every romantic movie youíve ever seen, right down to the splashing in the surf and the running hand-in-hand through the golden meadows at twilight. At this time I was still thinking my divorce might actually proceed gracefully, though I was giving my husband the summer off from talking about it so we could both cool down. Anyway, it was so easy not to think about all that loss in the midst of such happiness. Then that summer (otherwise known as ìthe reprieveî) ended.
On September 9, 2001, I met with my husband face-to-face for the last time, not realizing that every future meeting would necessitate lawyers between us, to mediate. We had dinner in a restaurant. I tried to talk about our separation, but all we did was fight. He let me know that I was a liar and a traitor and that he hated me and would never speak to me again. Two mornings later I woke up after a troubled nightís sleep to find that hijacked airplanes were crashing into the two tallest buildings of my city, as everything invincible that had once stood together now became a smoldering avalanche of ruin. I called my husband to make sure he was safe and we wept together over this disaster, but I did not go to him. During that week, when everyone in New York City dropped animosity in deference to the larger tragedy at hand, I still did not go back to my husband. Which is how we both knew it was very, very over.
Itís not much of an exaggeration to say that I did not sleep again for the next four months. I thought I had fallen to bits before, but now (in harmony with the apparent collapse of the entire world) my life really turned to smash. I wince now to think of what I imposed on David during those months we lived together, right after 9/11 and my separation from my husband. Imagine his surprise to discover that the happiest, most confident woman heíd ever met was actuallyówhen you got her aloneóa murky hole of bottomless grief. Once again, I could not stop crying. This is when he started to retreat, and thatís when I saw the other side of my passionate romantic heroó the David who was solitary as a castaway, cool to the touch, in need of more personal space than a herd of American bison.
Davidís sudden emotional back-stepping probably wouldíve been a catastrophe for me even under the best of circumstances, given that I am the planetís most affectionate life-form (something like a cross between a golden retriever and a barnacle), but this was my very worst of circumstances. I was despondent and dependent, needing more care than an armful of premature infant triplets. His withdrawal only made me more needy, and my neediness only advanced his withdrawals, until soon he was retreating under fire of my weeping pleas of, ìWhere are you going? What happened to us?î
(Dating tip: Men LOVE this.)
The fact is, I had become addicted to David (in my defense, he had fostered this, being something of a ìman-fataleî), and now that his attention was wavering, I was suffering the easily foreseeable consequences. Addiction is the hallmark of every infatuation-based love story. It all begins when the object of your adoration bestows upon you a heady, hallucinogenic dose of something you never even dared to admit that you wantedóan emotional speedball, perhaps, of thunderous love and roiling excitement. Soon you start craving that intense attention, with the hungry obsession of any junkie. When the drug is withheld, you promptly turn sick, crazy and depleted (not to mention resentful of the dealer who encouraged this addiction in the first place but who now refuses to pony up the good stuff anymoreódespite the fact that you know he has it hidden somewhere, goddamn it, because he used to give it to you for free). Next stage finds you skinny and shaking in a corner, certain only that you would sell your soul or rob your neighbors just to have that thing even one more time. Meanwhile, the object of your adoration has now become repulsed by you. He looks at you like youíre someone heís never met before, much less someone he once loved with high passion. The irony is, you can hardly blame him. I mean, check yourself out. Youíre a pathetic mess, unrecognizable even to your own eyes.
So thatís it. You have now reached infatuationís final destinationóthe complete and merciless devaluation of self.
The fact that I can even write calmly about this today is mighty evidence of timeís healing powers, because I didnít take it well as it was happening. To be losing David right after the failure of my marriage, and right after the terrorizing of my city, and right during the worst ugliness of divorce (a life experience my friend Brian has compared to ìhaving a really bad car accident every single day for about two yearsî) ... well, this was simply too much.
David and I continued to have our bouts of fun and compatibility during the days, but at night, in his bed, I became the only survivor of a nuclear winter as he visibly retreated from me, more every day, as though I were infectious. I came to fear nighttime like it was a torturerís cellar. I would lie there beside Davidís beautiful, inaccessible sleeping body and I would spin into a panic of loneliness and meticulously detailed suicidal thoughts. Every part of my body pained me. I felt like I was some kind of primitive spring-loaded machine, placed under far more tension than it had ever been built to sustain, about to blast apart at great danger to anyone standing nearby. I imagined my body parts flying off my torso in order to escape the volcanic core of unhappiness that had become: me. Most mornings, David would wake to find me sleeping fitfully on the floor beside his bed, huddled on a pile of bathroom towels, like a dog.
ìWhat happened now?î he would askóanother man thoroughly exhausted by me.
I think I lost something like thirty pounds during that time.
Oh, but it wasnít all bad, those few years ...
Because God never slams a door in your face without opening a box of Girl Scout cookies (or however the old adage goes), some wonderful things did happen to me in the shadow of all that sorrow. For one thing, I finally started learning Italian. Also, I found an Indian Guru. Lastly, I was invited by an elderly medicine man to come and live with him in Indonesia.
Iíll explain in sequence.
To begin with, things started to look up somewhat when I moved out of Davidís place in early 2002 and found an apartment of my own for the first time in my life. I couldnít afford it, since I was still paying for that big house in the suburbs which nobody was living in anymore and which my husband was forbidding me to sell, and I was still trying to stay on top of all my legal and counseling fees ... but it was vital to my survival to have a One Bedroom of my own. I saw the apartment almost as a sanatorium, a hospice clinic for my own recovery. I painted the walls in the warmest colors I could find and bought myself flowers every week, as if I were visiting myself in the hospital. My sister gave me a hot water bottle as a housewarming gift (so I wouldnít have to be all alone in a cold bed) and I slept with the thing laid against my heart every night, as though nursing a sports injury.
David and I had broken up for good. Or maybe we hadnít. Itís hard to remember now how many times we broke up and joined up over those months. But there emerged a pattern: I would separate from David, get my strength and confidence back, and then (attracted as always by my strength and confidence) his passion for me would rekindle. Respectfully, soberly and intelligently, we would discuss ìtrying again,î always with some sane new plan for minimizing our apparent incompatibilities. We were so committed to solving this thing. Because how could two people who were so in love not end up happily ever after? It had to work. Didnít it? Reunited with fresh hopes, weíd share a few deliriously happy days together. Or sometimes even weeks. But eventually David would retreat from me once more and I would cling to him (or I would cling to him and he would retreatówe never could figure out how it got triggered) and Iíd end up destroyed all over again. And heíd end up gone.
David was catnip and kryptonite to me.
But during those periods when we were separated, as hard as it was, I was practicing living alone. And this experience was bringing a nascent interior shift. I was beginning to sense thatóeven though my life still looked like a multi-vehicle accident on the New Jersey Turnpike during holiday trafficóI was tottering on the brink of becoming a self-governing individual. When I wasnít feeling suicidal about my divorce, or suicidal about my drama with David, I was actually feeling kind of delighted about all the compartments of time and space that were appearing in my days, during which I could ask myself the radical new question: ìWhat do you want to do, Liz?î Most of the time (still so troubled from bailing out of my marriage) I didnít even dare to answer the question, but just thrilled privately to its existence. And when I finally started to answer, I did so cautiously. I would only allow myself to express little baby-step wants. Like:
I want to go to a Yoga class.
I want to leave this party early, so I can go home and read a novel.
I want to buy myself a new pencil box.
Then there would always be that one weird answer, same every time:
I want to learn how to speak Italian.
For years, Iíd wished I could speak Italianóa language I find more beautiful than rosesóbut I could never make the practical justification for studying it. Why not just bone up on the French or Russian Iíd already studied years ago? Or learn to speak Spanish, the better to help me communicate with millions of my fellow Americans? What was I going to do with Italian? Itís not like I was going to move there. It would be more practical to learn how to play the accordion.
But why must everything always have a practical application? Iíd been such a diligent soldier for yearsóworking, producing, never missing a deadline, taking care of my loved ones, my gums and my credit record, voting, etc. Is this lifetime supposed to be only about duty? In this dark period of loss, did I need any justification for learning Italian other than that it was the only thing I could imagine bringing me any pleasure right now? And it wasnít that outrageous a goal, anyway, to want to study a language. Itís not like I was saying, at age thirty-two, ìI want to become the principal ballerina for the New York City Ballet.î Studying a language is something you can actually do. So I signed up for classes at one of those continuing education places (otherwise known as Night School for Divorced Ladies). My friends thought this was hilarious. My friend Nick asked, ìWhy are you studying Italian? So thatójust in case Italy ever invades Ethiopia again, and is actually successful this timeóyou can brag about knowing a language thatís spoken in two whole countries?î
But I loved it. Every word was a singing sparrow, a magic trick, a truffle for me. I would slosh home through the rain after class, draw a hot bath, and lie there in the bubbles reading the Italian dictionary aloud to myself, taking my mind off my divorce pressures and my heartache. The words made me laugh in delight. I started referring to my cell phone as il mio telefonino (ìmy teensy little telephoneî). I became one of those annoying people who always say Ciao! Only I was extra annoying, since I would always explain where the word ciao comes from. (If you must know, itís an abbreviation of a phrase used by medieval Venetians as an intimate salutation: Sono il suo schiavo! Meaning: ìI am your slave!î) Just speaking these words made me feel sexy and happy. My divorce lawyer told me not to worry; she said she had one client (Korean by heritage) who, after a yucky divorce, legally changed her name to something Italian, just to feel sexy and happy again.
Maybe I would move to Italy, after all ...
The other notable thing that was happening during that time was the newfound adventure of spiritual discipline. Aided and abetted, of course, by the introduction into my life of an actual living Indian Guruófor whom I will always have David to thank. Iíd been introduced to my Guru the first night I ever went to Davidís apartment. I kind of fell in love with them both at the same time. I walked into Davidís apartment and saw this picture on his dresser of a radiantly beautiful Indian woman and I asked, ìWhoís that?î
He said, ìThat is my spiritual teacher.î
My heart skipped a beat and then flat-out tripped over itself and fell on its face. Then my heart stood up, brushed itself off, took a deep breath and announced: ìI want a spiritual teacher.î I literally mean that it was my heart who said this, speaking through my mouth. I felt this weird division in myself, and my mind stepped out of my body for a moment, spun around to face my heart in astonishment and silently asked, ìYou DO?î
ìYes,î replied my heart. ìI do.î
Then my mind asked my heart, a tad sarcastically: ìSince WHEN?î
But I already knew the answer: Since that night on the bathroom floor.
My God, but I wanted a spiritual teacher. I immediately began constructing a fantasy of what it would be like to have one. I imagined that this radiantly beautiful Indian woman would come to my apartment a few evenings a week and we would sit and drink tea and talk about divinity, and she would give me reading assignments and explain the significance of the strange sensations I was feeling during meditation ...
All this fantasy was quickly swept away when David told me about the international status of this woman, about her tens of thousands of studentsómany of whom have never met her face-to-face. Still, he said, there was a gathering here in New York City every Tuesday night of the Guruís devotees who came together as a group to meditate and chant. David said, ìIf youíre not too freaked out by the idea of being in a room with several hundred people chanting Godís name in Sanskrit, you can come sometime.î
I joined him the following Tuesday night. Far from being freaked out by these regular-looking people singing to God, I instead felt my soul rise diaphanous in the wake of that chanting. I walked home that night feeling like the air could move through me, like I was clean linen fluttering on a clothesline, like New York itself had become a city made of rice paperóand I was light enough to run across every rooftop. I started going to the chants every Tuesday. Then I started meditating every morning on the ancient Sanskrit mantra the Guru gives to all her students (the regal Om Namah Shivaya, meaning, ìI honor the divinity that resides within meî). Then I listened to the Guru speak in person for the first time, and her words gave me chill bumps over my whole body, even across the skin of my face. And when I heard she had an Ashram in India, I knew I must take myself there as quickly as possible.
In the meantime, though, I had to go on this trip to Indonesia.
Which happened, again, because of a magazine assignment. Just when I was feeling particularly sorry for myself for being broke and lonely and caged up in Divorce Internment Camp, an editor from a womenís magazine asked if she could pay to send me to Bali to write a story about Yoga vacations. In return I asked her a series of questions, mostly along the line of Is a bean green? and Does James Brown get down? When I got to Bali (which is, to be brief, a very nice place) the teacher who was running the Yoga retreat asked us, ìWhile youíre all here, is there anybody who would like to go visit a ninth-generation Balinese medicine man?î (another question too obvious to even answer), and so we all went over to his house one night.
The medicine man, as it turned out, was a small, merry-eyed, russet-colored old guy with a mostly toothless mouth, whose resemblance in every way to the Star Wars character Yoda cannot be exaggerated. His name was Ketut Liyer. He spoke a scattered and thoroughly entertaining kind of English, but there was a translator available for when he got stuck on a word.
Our Yoga teacher had told us in advance that we could each bring one question or problem to the medicine man, and he would try to help us with our troubles. Iíd been thinking for days of what to ask him. My initial ideas were so lame. Will you make my husband give me a divorce? Will you make David be sexually attracted to me again? I was rightly ashamed of myself for these thoughts: who travels all the way around the world to meet an ancient medicine man in Indonesia, only to ask him to intercede in boy trouble?
So when the old man asked me in person what I really wanted, I found other, truer words.
ìI want to have a lasting experience of God,î I told him. ìSometimes I feel like I understand the divinity of this world, but then I lose it because I get distracted by my petty desires and fears. I want to be with God all the time. But I donít want to be a monk, or totally give up worldly pleasures. I guess what I want to learn is how to live in this world and enjoy its delights, but also devote myself to God.î
Ketut said he could answer my question with a picture. He showed me a sketch heíd drawn once during meditation. It was an androgynous human figure, standing up, hands clasped in prayer. But this figure had four legs, and no head. Where the head should have been, there was only a wild foliage of ferns and flowers. There was a small, smiling face drawn over the heart.
ìTo find the balance you want,î Ketut spoke through his translator, ìthis is what you must become. You must keep your feet grounded so firmly on the earth that itís like you have four legs, instead of two. That way, you can stay in the world. But you must stop looking at the world through your head. You must look through your heart, instead. That way, you will know God.î
Then he asked if he could read my palm. I gave him my left hand and he proceeded to put me together like a three-piece puzzle.
ìYouíre a world traveler,î he began.
Which I thought was maybe a little obvious, given that I was in Indonesia at the moment, but I didnít force the point ...
ìYou have more good luck than anyone Iíve ever met. You will live a long time, have many friends, many experiences. You will see the whole world. You only have one problem in your life. You worry too much. Always you get too emotional, too nervous. If I promise you that you will never have any reason in your life to ever worry about anything, will you believe me?î Nervously I nodded, not believing him.
ìFor work, you do something creative, maybe like an artist, and you get paid good money for it. Always you will get paid good money for this thing you do. You are generous with money, maybe too generous. Also one problem. You will lose all your money once in your life. I think maybe it will happen soon.î
ìI think maybe it will happen in the next six to ten months,î I said, thinking about my divorce. Ketut nodded as if to say, Yeah, that sounds about right. ìBut donít worry,î he said. ìAfter you lose all your money, you will get it all right back again. Right away youíll be fine. You will have two marriages in your life. One short, one long. And you will have two children ...î
I waited for him to say, ìone short, one long,î but he was suddenly silent, frowning at my palm. Then he said, ìStrange ...,î which is something you never want to hear from either your palm- reader or your dentist. He asked me to move directly under the hanging lightbulb so he could take a better look.
ìI am wrong,î he announced. ìYou will only have only one child. Late in life, a daughter. Maybe. If you decide ... but there is something else.î He frowned, then looked up, suddenly absolutely confident: ìSomeday soon you will come back here to Bali. You must. You will stay here in Bali for three, maybe four months. You will be my friend. Maybe you will live here with my family. I can practice English with you. I never had anybody to practice English with. I think you are good with words. I think this creative work you do is something about words, yes?î
ìYes!î I said. ìIím a writer. Iím a book writer!î
ìYou are a book writer from New York,î he said, in agreement, in confirmation. ìSo you will come back here to Bali and live here and teach me English. And I will teach you everything I know.î
Then he stood up and brushed off his hands, like: Thatís settled.
I said, ìIf youíre serious, mister, Iím serious.î
He beamed at me toothlessly and said, ìSee you later, alligator.î