Richard from Texas was married once, too. He had two sons, both of whom are grown men now, both close to their dad. Sometimes Richard mentions his ex-wife in some anecdote or other, and he always seems to speak of her with fondness. I get a bit envious whenever I hear this, imagining how lucky Richard is to still be friends with his former spouse, even after separating. This is an odd side effect of my terrible divorce; whenever I hear of couples splitting amicably, I get jealous. It's worse than that--I've actually come to think that it's really romantic when a marriage ends civilly. Like, "Aw . . . how sweet . . . they must've really loved each other . . ."
So I asked Richard one day about it. I said, "It seems like you have fond feelings toward your ex-wife. Are you two still close?"
"Nah," he said casually. "She thinks I changed my name to Motherfucker."
Richard's lack of concern about this impressed me. My own ex-spouse happens to think I changed my name too, and it breaks my heart. One of the hardest things about this divorce was the fact that my ex-husband never forgave me for leaving, that it didn't matter how many bushels of apologies or explanations I laid at his feet, how much blame
I assumed, or how many assets or acts of contrition I was willing to offer him in exchange for departing--he certainly was never going to congratulate me and say, "Hey, I was so impressed with your generosity and honesty and I just want to tell you it's been a great pleasure being divorced by you." No. I was unredeemable. And this unredeemed dark hole was still inside me. Even in moments of happiness and excitement (especially in moments of happiness and excitement) I could never forget it for long. I am still hated by him. And that felt like it would never change, never release.
I was talking about all this one day with my friends at the Ashram--the newest member of whom is a plumber from New Zealand, a guy I'd met because he'd heard I was a writer and he sought me out to tell me that he was one, too. He's a poet who had recently published a terrific memoir in New Zealand called A Plumber's Progress about his own spiritual journey. The plumber/poet from New Zealand, Richard from Texas, the Irish dairy farmer, Tulsi the Indian teenage tomboy and Vivian, an older woman with wispy white hair and incandescently humorous eyes (who used to be a nun in South Africa)-- this was my circle of close friends here, a most vibrant crowd of characters whom I never would have expected to meet at an Ashram in India.
So, during lunch one day, we were all having this conversation together about marriage, and the plumber/poet from New Zealand said, "I see marriage as an operation that sews two people together, and divorce is a kind of amputation that can take a long time to heal. The longer you were married, or the rougher the amputation, the harder it is to recover."
Which would explain the postdivorce, postamputation sensations I've had for a few years now, of still swinging that phantom limb around, constantly knocking stuff off the shelves.
Richard from Texas was wondering if I was planning on allowing my ex-husband to dictate for the rest of my life how I felt about myself, and I said I wasn't too sure about that, actually--so far, my ex still seemed to have a pretty strong vote, and to be honest I was still halfway waiting for the man to forgive me, to release me and allow me to go forth in peace.
The dairy farmer from Ireland observed, "Waiting for that day to arrive is not exactly a rational use of your time."
"What can I say, guys? I do a lot with guilt. Kind of like the way other women do a lot with beige."
The former Catholic nun (who oughtta know about guilt, after all) wouldn't hear of it. "Guilt's just your ego's way of tricking you into thinking that you're making moral progress. Don't fall for it, my dear."
"What I hate about the way my marriage ended," I said, "is that it's so unresolved. It's just an open wound that never goes away."
"If you insist," said Richard. "If that's how you've decided to think about it, don't let me spoil your party."
"One of these days this has to end," I said. "I just wish I knew how."
When lunch ended, the plumber/poet from New Zealand slipped me a note. It said to meet him after dinner; he wanted to show me something. So after dinner that night I met him over by the meditation caves, and he told me to follow him, that he had a gift for me. He walked me across the Ashram, then led me to a building I'd never been inside before, unlocked a door and took me up a back set of stairs. He knew of this place, I guessed, because he fixes all the air-conditioning units, and some of them are located up there. At the top of the stairs there was a door which he had to unlock with a combination; he did this swiftly, from memory. Then we were up on a gorgeous rooftop, tiled in ceramic chips that glittered in the evening twilight like the bottom of a reflecting pool. He took me across that roof to a little tower, a minaret, really, and showed me another narrow set of stairs, leading to the tippity-top of the tower. He pointed to the tower and said, "I'm going to leave you now. You're going to go up there. Stay up there until it's finished." "Until what's finished?" I asked.
The plumber just smiled, handed me a flashlight, "for getting down safely when it's over," and also handed me a folded piece of paper. Then he left.
I climbed to the top of the tower. I was now standing at the tallest place in the Ashram, with a view overlooking the entirety of this river valley in India. Mountains and farmland stretched out as far as I could see. I had a feeling this was not a place students were normally allowed to hang out, but it was so lovely up there. Maybe this is where my
Guru watches the sun go down, when she's in residence here. And the sun was going down right now. The breeze was warm. I unfolded the piece of paper the plumber/poet had given me.
He had typed:
INSTRUCTIONS FOR FREEDOM
1. Life's metaphors are God's instructions.
2. You have just climbed up and above the roof. There is nothing between you and the Infinite. Now, let go.
3. The day is ending. It's time for something that was beautiful to turn into something else that is beautiful. Now, let go.
4. Your wish for resolution was a prayer. Your being here is God's response. Let go, and watch the stars come out--on the outside and on the inside.
5. With all your heart, ask for grace, and let go.
6. With all your heart, forgive him, FORGIVE YOURSELF, and let him go.
7. Let your intention be freedom from useless suffering. Then, let go.
8. Watch the heat of day pass into the cool night. Let go.
9. When the karma of a relationship is done, only love remains. It's safe. Let go.
10. When the past has passed from you at last, let go. Then climb down and begin the rest of your life. With great joy.
For the first few minutes, I couldn't stop laughing. I could see over the whole valley, over the umbrella of the mango trees, and the wind was blowing my hair around like a flag. I watched the sun go down, and then I lay down on my back and watched the stars come out. I sang a small little prayer in Sanskrit, and repeated it every time I saw a new star emerge in the darkening sky, almost like I was calling forth the stars, but then they started popping out too fast and I couldn't keep up with them. Soon the whole sky was a glitzy show of stars. The only thing between me and God was . . . nothing.
Then I shut my eyes and I said, "Dear Lord, please show me everything I need to understand about forgiveness and surrender."
What I had wanted for so long was to have an actual conversation with my ex-husband, but this was obviously never going to happen. What I had been craving was a resolution, a peace summit, from which we could emerge with a united understanding of what had occurred in our marriage, and a mutual forgiveness for the ugliness of our divorce. But months of counseling and mediation had only made us more divided and locked our positions solid, turning us into two people who were absolutely incapable of giving each other any release. Yet it's what we both needed, I was sure of it. And I was sure of this, too--that the rules of transcendence insist that you will not advance even one inch closer to divinity as long as you cling to even one last seductive thread of blame. As smoking is to the lungs, so is resentment to the soul; even one puff of it is bad for you. I mean, what kind of prayer is this to imbibe--"Give us this day our daily grudge"? You might just as well hang it up and kiss God good-bye if you really need to keep blaming somebody else for your own life's limitations. So what I asked of God that night on the Ashram roof was--given the reality that I would probably never speak to my ex-husband again--might there be some level upon which we could communicate? Some level on which we could forgive?
I lay up there, high above the world, and I was all alone. I dropped into meditation and waited to be told what to do. I don't know how many minutes or hours passed before I knew what to do. I realized I'd been thinking about all this too literally. I'd been wanting to talk to my ex-husband? So talk to him. Talk to him right now. I'd been waiting to be offered forgiveness? Offer it up personally, then. Right now. I thought of how many people go to their graves unforgiven and unforgiving. I thought of how many people have had siblings or friends or children or lovers disappear from their lives before precious words of clemency or absolution could be passed along. How do the survivors of terminated relationships ever endure the pain of unfinished business? From that place of meditation, I found the answer--you can finish the business yourself, from within yourself. It's not only possible, it's essential.
And then, to my surprise, still in meditation, I did an odd thing. I invited my ex-husband to please join me up here on this rooftop in India. I asked him if he would be kind enough to meet me up here for this farewell event. Then I waited until I felt him arrive. And he did arrive. His presence was suddenly absolute and tangible. I could practically smell him.
I said, "Hi, sweetie."
I almost started to cry right then, but quickly realized I didn't need to. Tears are part of this bodily life, and the place where these two souls were meeting that night in India had nothing to do with the body. The two people who needed to talk to each other up there on the roof were not even people anymore. They wouldn't even be talking. They weren't even ex-spouses, not an obstinate midwesterner and a high-strung Yankee, not a guy in his forties and a woman in her thirties, not two limited people who had argued for years about sex and money and furniture--none of this was relevant. For the purposes of this meeting, at the level of this reunion, they were just two cool blue souls who already understood everything. Unbound by their bodies, unbound by the complex history of their past relationship, they came together above this roof (above me, even) in infinite wisdom. Still in meditation, I watched these two cool blue souls circle each other, merge, divide again and regard each other's perfection and similarity. They knew everything. They knew everything long ago and they will always know everything. They didn't need to forgive each other; they were born forgiving each other.
The lesson they were teaching me in their beautiful turning was, "Stay out of this, Liz. Your part of this relationship is over. Let us work things out from now on. You go on with your life."
Much later I opened my eyes, and I knew it was over. Not just my marriage and not just
my divorce, but all the unfinished bleak hollow sadness of it . . . it was over. I could feel that I was free. Let me be clear--it's not that I would never again think about my ex- husband, or never again have any emotions attached to the memory of him. It's just that this ritual on the rooftop had finally given me a place where I could house those thoughts and feelings whenever they would arise in the future--and they will always arise. But
when they do show up again, I can just send them back here, back to this rooftop of memory, back to the care of those two cool blue souls who already and always understand everything.
This is what rituals are for. We do spiritual ceremonies as human beings in order to create a safe resting place for our most complicated feelings of joy or trauma, so that we don't have to haul those feelings around with us forever, weighing us down. We all need such places of ritual safekeeping. And I do believe that if your culture or tradition doesn't have the specific ritual you're craving, then you are absolutely permitted to make up a ceremony of your own devising, fixing your own broken-down emotional systems with all the do-it-yourself resourcefulness of a generous plumber/poet. If you bring the right earnestness to your homemade ceremony, God will provide the grace. And that is why we need God.
So I stood up and did a handstand on my Guru's roof, to celebrate the notion of liberation. I felt the dusty tiles under my hands. I felt my own strength and balance. I felt the easy night breeze on the palms of my bare feet. This kind of thing--a spontaneous handstand--isn't something a disembodied cool blue soul can do, but a human being can do it. We have hands; we can stand on them if we want to. That's our privilege. That's the joy of a mortal body. And that's why God needs us. Because God loves to feel things through our hands.