After getting home from Houston after dark on Monday night, yesterday was my first chance to see New Hampshire once again in daylight. I’ve lived here in Keene for about 16 months: long enough to have seen her in all her seasons, weathers, and temperaments. Still, whenever I leave Keene to visit other places, I feel the need to check back in with her when I return: how are things, how have you been, what has happened since I’ve been gone?
Yesterday I walked the usual rounds with the dog and digicam in tow. Like a doctor walking her rounds, I was on the lookout for anything unusual: what graffiti has appeared since my last rounds; what objects have been moved or rearranged? It’s not so much that I expect Keene to fall to pieces while I’m gone since as “patients” go, my little town is about as “stable” as they come. Still, I continually feel the need to check and re-check the old familiar sights after having not seen them for a couple of days: like any long-time friend, my adopted hometown is a “person” I care to connect with frequently lest we grow distant and find ourselves fallen gradually out of touch.
This might seem like a quaint metaphor, this insistance that Keene is a person with whom I have an intimate relationship, a person I both want and need to check in with on a daily basis. But in the months since my separation and divorce, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how I relate to both places and people, and I’ve realized that I relate to the two in nearly the exact same way. In the aftermath of separation and divorce, I’ve seldom felt lonely even though I’ve spent a good deal of time alone. This aloneness is something I’ve cherished not because I’m intrinsically antisocial but because it’s been punctuated by contact. Every day I’ve been in contact either in person, online, or via phone with friends who support me, and every day I’ve set foot in the actual, tangible world–the streets and sidewalks of my hometown–as a way of staying literally grounded.
When I was “born again” in college, the thing that appealed to me the most about evangelical Christianity was its insistence upon relationship. The standard one-liner we’d toss off when witnessing to strangers (“Have you experienced the joy of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, or are you still on the way?”) is incredibly cliched, hokey, and impertinent: the practice of trying to “convert” strangers was never one I practiced with conviction. Still, something about the notion of having a “personal relationship” with God deeply appealed to me, and it still does. Although I don’t think one’s spiritual path can be summed up in a one-liner nor do I think it’s necessary to “save” those on different paths than mine, I do think that many of us secretly crave connection: we long to have deeper relationships with others, with ourselves, with our surroundings, and (yes) with God.
To say that relating deeply with others, self, place, and spirit is the summation of spiritual practice–to say that these seemingly different sorts of relationship are all of a piece, the four sides of a symmetric square–might (again) sound incredibly trite. But the more I consider it, I can’t think of any better way to describe my own spiritual path, a zigzag journey that included jaunts into Catholicism, fundamentalist Christianity, Zen Buddhism, and literary Transcendentalism. Whatever you might call your spiritual path, what interests me is how you relate to your world: are your eyes open or closed? Does your compassion encompass all beings or just your backyard? Having chosen to love and redeem the entire world, have you forgotten that charity (like its overlooked sister, mindfulness) does indeed start at home?
I’m always surprised when people compliment me on the photos I post on my blog, for these are snapshots of the most ordinary kind. Walking around Keene with a leash in one hand and a digicam in the other, I simply record what I see: there is very little “art” or intention behind it. And yet, this kind of simple seeing is indeed the very heart of meditation practice: without judgment or preconception, what is it that falls before your eyes at any given moment? Without judgment or preconception, can you love that sight as if it were your very last? If you knew that tomorrow your mother or lover or brother would die–if you knew that tomorrow you yourself would die–what parts of their face or person would you notice or cherish? If today were your last day on earth, what sights would you re-visit and remember; what details would you etch in memory as a shield against mortality?
We remember, occasionally, not to take our loved ones for granted: we take the time, ideally, to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, those temporal reminders that Relationships Matter. But what holidays or customs serve to re-connect us with place; what rituals serve to ground us in the here and now by reminding us to notice the overlooked and forgotten things that surround us perpetually? In our heart of hearts, we hope and pray that God remembers us, that when we die, God will notice and call us by name…and yet day by day we forget, overlook, and neglect God’s many handiworks in our lives, assuming that Divinity only happens in lightning and tempest, in great raging flood or firestorm.
In my mind, this present world is our proving ground, a practice place where we show God our true stuff. God indeed wants us in relationship: I truly believe that there is no one in the Universe more lonely than God. Why else would Supreme Deity create a flawed and mortal world if other than to love it; what other reason to create than to assuage one’s own inner loneliness? God in his heaven is entirely and deeply alone, and day to day God looks down on this world, waiting and wondering: when will someone stop, look, and notice the works of my hands, and when will someone–anyone–turn their eyes toward me and Love?
In our bumbling way, we stumble through our various earthly relationships, breaking hearts and having our hearts broken in turn. In the process, our souls grow tender, and in our lonely moments, we realize or remember that we were created to relate. In this need for connection, we are akin to all creation, for the whole kit and caboodle was created for this exact purpose: Love. God didn’t put us on earth as a punishment; the created world isn’t some cruel, sadistic joke. No, God put us here to love, to run through our paces as we learn to love one another, ourselves, and our surroundings. When we’ve gotten those earthly lessons in our fool heads, then maybe we’ll prove ourselves ready for the Next Level.
And yet, even this is a bunch of malarkey, for it suggests that God is separate and apart, an aloof judge looking down with one raised eyebrow. No, God is in this thing; God is this thing, suffusing, indwelling, and maintaining it. God is both heartbreaker and heartbroken; God himself stumbles and bumbles in our uncertain steps, the forgetter and forgotten. We err often not because we’re intrinsically evil but because Love needs failure in order to forgive. Original sin is a fortunate fall because of the caring kisses we receive as we lie crumpled and wounded, reminded of our own vulnerability and dependent need; salvation, the ultimate Make-up Sex with a God long accustomed to his Beloved’s serial infidelities.
And yet if we foolishly try to jump the gun–if we impertinently try to scale the stairway to heaven, headed straight toward God–God himself pushes us back. Not yet. You’re not ready. There’s still a whole turning world that awaits you, a world filled with heartbreak and hope, exploration and promise. God the Creator was right: it’s not good for man to be alone. And so we’ve been planted in the actual world–in Keene or in Houston or in sundry places in between and beyond–to learn and to love, lonely souls among countless other lonely souls. It’s all about relationship: it always has been, perpetual and eternal. This is the place where we meet and mingle, the place where we acquaint and re-acquaint. And if we reach out with hearts full of hope, God himself lies within every handshake, the very fabric of our union.