I don’t really know about God. If she’s out there looking down on me, she’s not giving me much to go on. After seventy-seven years of trying to find out what this world is trying to tell me, I’m still a bit stuck about what things are truly certain, like whether a God exists, male, female or anything in between. The only two things that even come close to certainty are an open heart and an open mind – two things that seem to have a symbiotic relationship. The more open the mind, the more open the heart becomes, and vice versa.
Let me try to be a bit clearer. First, an open mind has very little to do with intelligence in my view. I think it has more to do with an acceptance that the world has many things to teach us, and every day provides the opportunity to learn. There is an innate humility to an open mind that is essential to real learning. Second, an open heart in my view needs to be fearless. The problem here is that the difference between brave and foolhardy is not always clear. Also, even if I can be clear about my own bravery, others in the same situation may not be. Then the situation becomes whether or not I think I’m superior or special because I am clear. Complicated, isn’t it?
Here’s what I know about myself. I have learned without any doubt that I can make mistakes, so any idea that I know better than others what’s right or true goes right out the window. Like everyone else, I am limited by my own experiences, and there is a great deal I have not experienced. I think that the rarest and most important experience any of us can have is unconditional love --- both giving it and receiving it. It is an amazingly difficult thing to give if you have never received it.
In my family, the only person who managed unconditional love was my mother. The less savory corollary to unconditional love is conditional, or I prefer transactional, love. Simply put, transactional love is “I’ll do this for you as long as you do something for me as well.” My years of listening to people’s stories have convinced me that families are rife with transactional love. With my father and my older brother the transaction was basically that I had to think the way they did. Our ancestors were involved in the Mayflower settlements in New England, so I would frequently at mealtimes listen to my father complain about how all the other “races” were the problem with America, and he had unkind descriptions of them all.
My mother was, in my father’s view, of a servant origin. He once told her, when she wanted to run for a position in the town government that she was too stupid to do that. She had to ask him every week for the money to buy food and support the household. With very little voice in the major decisions of our family, she turned her attention to our local Episcopal Church. She was what I would consider a good Christian and did not insist that her children be Christians as well.
When my mother died at age 91, I recited the following poem I had written a few years before:
My Mother’s Hands
I’m standing in church on Sunday morning.
Me, the once atheist and long-time agnostic,
Saying, with all the other people,
Love is the doctrine of this church
And service is its prayer.
At the same time I’m looking down at my hands
On the back of the time-worn wooden pew
In front of me, and I see a brown spot
On the back of my hands, between the veins,
One of those spots that comes with age,
And there’s a knuckle or two swollen
With arthritis, and suddenly they are not my hands.
They are my mother’s hands.
At the same time I hear myself saying those words,
And prayer comes through my ears and inside to some spot
Deeper than my own blemishes, and there’s a ripple effect,
Words echoing from rib to rib …service…love…doctrine.
And suddenly I see, clearer than daylight, my mother’s hands
Buttoning my winter coat, setting a plate before me,
Brushing my hair. With every loving detail forced
To its proper place, according to her doctrine.
Mother, Son and Holy Ghost.
And service is her prayer.
She has asked for nothing more.
For all the quiet pain and absences
Gone by without a show, for every spot and scar
And midnight ache of sewing fingers, hallelujah!
I have been at your church my whole life,
And Love is the doctrine of your church.
For many years, this was the only unconditional love I knew. I had a daughter, but she had grown up with her mother in Canada and I didn’t truly know her. As she has grown older, my conditions for love have disappeared, and I love her deeply.
The central love of my life came about quite unexpectedly when I was almost forty-two years old. I mention the years because of the astrologers who may read this and nod their heads, knowing about the mid-life crisis year when the planet Uranus goes opposite its natal position. For me, this year was both a “crisis” in one sense and a new beginning in another sense.
As briefly as I can, the story goes like this. My best friend, Mike, was living in the Massachusetts town where I worked. Also living in that town was a beautiful woman named Carla who was to become my partner and unconditional love. But first there were a few glitches to overcome. Carla was a member of a UU (Unitarian/Universalist) church in the town and so was Mike --- that’s how they knew each other. Mike, by the way, was (and still is) married to his own unconditional love. But Mike had no idea that Carla was engaged to be married to and living with (in her house) another man named Bill. An interesting aside here is that both Carla’s father and brother are also named William.
But here’s where it becomes interesting (the possible subject of a bad romance novel.) Both Mike and I are somewhat minor poets (sorry, Mike), and were we giving a reading at the UU church. Carla walked briefly into the room and saw me for the first time, but I was too busy and never saw her. She told me much later that she was “convinced I was quite stuck on myself.”
Mike and I played tennis together at a nearby “racquet and swim club” every Sunday evening, and it happened that Carla also swam there. The warm-up room where Mike and I always warmed up, also looked out (through a small glass window) on the swimming pool. Unbeknownst to me, Carla had asked Mike who the person was that he played tennis with on Sunday nights. So she swam up to the edge of the pool and looked up at us through the small window. Mike introduced us through the window and we both said “hi”, but not much more. I might have mumbled something about Mike having her number. Pretty suave, eh?
The truth is that I was thunderstruck by her appearance and the possibility of getting to know her. I think Mike knew this, but said nothing. I think, for the first time in quite a while, I actually beat him at tennis that night. So I called Carla and agreed to have lunch a few days later.
It was at this lunch that I learned both that she was engaged and that he was living with her. I was confused. Why was she having lunch with me? But I soldiered on and, being an amateur astrologer, I asked for her birth info. When I put her birth chart together, I began to understand some of the attraction, especially her Moon/Pluto/Ascendant in Leo trine to my Sun/Venus in Sagittarius. But I digress. I called her again and asked to meet again in a local (to her) restaurant. This time I was pretty insistent that the planets were well aligned for us. I had no idea where all this positive energy was coming from because I had always been quite shy about dating.
We met on May 6th and on about May 24th , a few weeks before she was due to be married, we met at noon in a local Brigham’s Ice Cream shop, and I slid a small box with an engagement ring in it across the table and suggested she make a choice. I had woken that morning completely convinced that she was the one, so I went to a savings account and then to Shreve, Crump & Low in Boston where I bought the ring. She went home that afternoon and explained everything to her fiancé. He left later that week.
The next few months were spent explaining our temporary insanity to parents and children. My father had died 14 years earlier, and my mother was confused about our situation, but basically happy for me, as was my daughter. Carla’s situation was trickier. I spent some time getting to know her son and daughter since our plan was for me to move in with them and her mother when we were married. I also met her parents because they had made arrangements to fly up from Florida for a wedding, and they weren’t going to change their tickets. The result was that they did not attend our wedding in September, even though they liked me well enough.
So how does all this relate to prayer? I had not asked God or anyone for any favors. That would have seemed too “transactional” for me. But something was clearly happening that was not entirely intentional. Some other “force” was bringing me to new understandings and new commitments. I don’t believe that it was an entity beyond me so much as inherent in me. And this was, I think, shown conclusively when Carla and I went to Martha’s Vineyard for our honeymoon. We were strolling along a beach and I was explaining to her how I had made a habit over the years of looking for beach glass (glass that has been rolled to smoothness in the sea), and I had never found a red one, which were quite rare. Just a few seconds later, I looked down and found the only one I had ever found (I have since found another on the same beach many years later, shaped like a heart.)
I have recently been reading a novel which talks about the items that World War II bomber crews from England would keep as a kind of talisman to keep them alive on bombing missions over Germany, an extremely hazardous task. Sometimes it might be a girlfriend’s underwear, or a wife’s wedding ring or more often a simple stuffed animal given to them by a sister or friend. This was their way of praying without seeming to pray. I looked up the word “talisman” and found that it came from the Greek word “telesma” meaning completion, as though the object represented a signing of a contract with the powers that be. And then it occurred to me that this is exactly right --- praying is a kind of private contract between someone and his/her own service to the world. And the talisman is something found on this earth, something lasting while we still know that nothing lasts, except, of course, the love without conditions, the ultimate contract.