Just Grab Polished Rocks at the Last Minute
Lessons Learned in a Tent in Utah
I am in Utah in a cabin-sized tent, on which a form of precipitation is falling that I cannot identify. It looks like hail but it is softer—more like snow. Except it falls in rounded clumps in a very unsnowlike manner. Let’s call it hailow. No, shail.
The shail splats, and eventually merges to form clumps that slide from the tent’s gently sloping roof, making a soft whump on the grass below. I listen, not moving my head, which aches from the overexertion of yesterday in which I climbed several miles of trails. Between each whump are several minutes of expectancy as I wait for the next whump.
Is that how I live as well? Waiting for the next moment of significance?
As if on cue, thunder sounds. I grope under the cot for, and slip on, my fingerless gloves to ward off the rising chill.
Just before my camping trip, as I had whipped the batter for gluten-free pancakes, my neighbour, Thayer, lounged in the kitchen, chatting with me.
“So you’ve made it through the first year of teaching! What do you think? Are you going back?”
I had smiled into the pan of melting butter. “Yes. Of course! As tired as I am of working two jobs and taking classes, by the end of summer, I’ll be ready for teaching again.” I had paused. “I feel useful. I know I’ve something to offer the kids.”
Sometimes what I had to offer was only a kind look or an interested ear. Simply hearing an adult speaking in formal English, using words they’ve never heard before, was helpful.
Thayer had continued, “What will you do this summer? Any plans?”
“I’m going camping in Utah for two weeks.”
“You’re going by yourself?”
“Yes,” I had said, sighing inwardly, waiting for the lecture I knew was coming.
I’ve heard all the ‘a woman alone’ cautionary speeches I’d cared to. Should a single woman sit at home waiting for companionship? I’d decided long ago to live as I would and accept any consequences. Thus far, my solo wanderings had served me well.
“Well, that’s brave,” Thayer had said, forgoing the lecture I’m sure she’s heard herself a few times.
My next words had flowed effortlessly, without premeditation, from that place from which truth arises.
“No. Brave is getting up every morning.”
A silence had settled down around us, like mist in the early morning.
She slowly nodded staring at me and past me at the same time, soundlessly acknowledging the kind of bravery that is needed to go about the business of living, when living is often unpleasant, tiring, sorrowful, disappointing, sometimes excruciating, and only occasionally, transcendent.
The transcendent moments sustain us. That is why we seek novelty. We look for the thrill, the memory of which will take us through ho-hum times when we wait for the next whump.
At times, the thrills are truly transcendent. I’ve had a few of these. OK, three. When I am in deepest despair or the blahs of boredom, I take them out and inspect these gifts, and they buoy me with their incandescence.
In spite of the daylight filtering through the tent’s ceiling, I see a flash that precedes the next clap of thunder, and I wait. When it arrives, I shiver just a tiny bit. The slight but ever-present fear of death makes me wonder at each flash—am I safe? Yes, is typically the answer. Typically.
In the tent, with the shail-turned-to-rain beating a steady pattern over my head, I doze. Tucked into my sleeping bag, I rest my aching eyes until the thunder sounds again. I am lying in the exact position of my most recent moment of transcendence.
It happened eleven years ago, when I was still married to husband #2. The handsome, wildly intelligent, crazy one. I’m not supposed to say crazy. Mentally ill is more appropriate. But he made me crazy with his mental illness. In fact, I often pictured myself drowning with his hands around my neck. He would be a distant unsettling memory if this moment of transcendence had not occurred while lying in bed next to him.
I had been breathing deeply, to calm myself enough to sleep. Slowly in, slowly out focusing only on the movement of my diaphragm. I have no accurate words for what happened next. One moment I was lying on the bed with my right hand loosely lying on my sternum and the next I was inside my chest, a point of light among the stars of the universe. I could see entire galaxies, star systems, planets suspended in benevolent space. At the same time, I was aware of my hand resting lightly on my chest and the bed beneath my spine. I was a spark in the universe and the universe was inside me, bounded by my chest. I was not asleep. Eyes closed, I whispered to my husband, “Are you awake?”
I’m having a ... I don’t know. I’m experiencing the strangest thing. The entire universe is inside me. But, I am a point of light in the middle of the universe.”
“No, I mean--I truly am experiencing this bizarre vision of entire galaxies inside me!” I was whispering, but clearly and audibly, in an effort to explain the inexplicable.
“But the strangest thing is the amazing feeling that I have. I am part of everything and it is pure joy. Everything is connected. Nothing is alone but everything is part of everything else and it is incredibly beautiful.”
I stopped. He could not feel what I was feeling, see what I was seeing, so it was not real. I was a light moving in space and could see all around me, the planets, the stars, the suns, the aliveness of the universe. At the same time, I knew myself to be lying in bed, whispering to my disbelieving husband.
I have often yearned, sometimes desperately, to feel again that moment of utter bliss, splendor, illumination. But wishing didn’t make it happen in the first place, and wishing won’t bring it back. Its memory, however, reassures me that I am part of something. The feeling of connection to everything was a moment of truth in a dark time. A beacon that shone the way forward, lighting those moments when I waited for my husband to be discharged from electroshock therapy. When I cooked dinner and mowed the lawn and painted the walls and stayed up late at night working overtime in advance of publishing deadlines.
The rain has tailed off now. Just a spattering that reminds me that even a tent, filmy and light, can protect. I nestle down into my sleeping bag, listening. I hear the faint sounds of movement, always present at a campsite. The last time I was in this tent, my son Samuel was with me. It is a large cabin tent and he had claimed the cot while I had a double roll of camp mattress below me. This time the cot is mine, and it is infinitely more comfortable.
I miss Samuel. Where his cot used to lie, I have placed the table. This fold-up table is, aside from my linens, perhaps the most useful thing I own. At home, it is my dining table covered with the pretty tablecloth that I bought in Kosovo. Here in the tent, the adjustable legs are set at half height and I have placed my books, my flashlight, the headlamp, my glasses and the tissue box. A snack. The rubik’s cube that I hope to master. My knitting.
The soft rain reminds me that I need to use the restroom. I am reluctant to leave the warmth of the sleeping bag, and I listen to the drumming of rain until, eventually, the situation escalates. I sigh as I slip out of the bag and into my shoes and rain jacket. This is the same rain jacket that I bought before going to Ireland. I remember the Irish rain as I zip it up, and I smile as I recall Mo’s laugh. She hiked the hills of Connemara with me, the only person I’ve ever met with a truly jaunty walk.
My life’s second moment of transcendence occurred one week after the World Trade Center disintegrated into rubble. The country was a bundle of shock and nerves. The commute into Chicago usually took 1.5 hours in the afternoon, but that day I made it in 45 minutes. As I sat waiting in the tangle of cars that were merging after paying the toll, I glanced over at the car next to me. In that moment, suddenly I was miles above looking down at the road that was no longer a road but a tiny moving thread. The traffic was a river, not separate people carriers, but one moving THING that was part of the Earth, like blood is part of a body. The feeling of unity, of purpose and belonging, was palpable. I could still see the man in the car next to me, staring forward, as if he were not part of me and me part of him. It was over as quickly as it had started.
The campsite’s restroom is warm from the hot showers of multiple campers, but back in the tent, I realize how cold it is. I slip on an extra pair of wool socks, though it is nearly June.
As I zip the sleeping bag once more about me, I smile as I recall the first moment of transcendent bliss that I can recall. Except it wasn’t a moment—it was a whole afternoon in which the sky seemed to sparkle and everything shimmered with brightness and beauty. I was in the car with my sister Mary, driving to my parent’s house from Austin where I was in college and where she lived. For five hours we talked and laughed. Stopped on the side of the road to pick flowers. We passed glimmering lakes under unbelievably puffy clouds. Nothing happened. Yet, the air gleamed with joy. I don’t know why that day of all days was filled with more-than-happiness.
Perhaps when we attempt to create a perfect day or moment or try to have a spirit-filled experience, we prevent its arrival. My most precious and glorious moments have occurred when I least expected them. When I was doing nothing to encourage it. As I was driving. When I waited for my next breath.
One Christmas, I spent hours poring over catalogs, carefully choosing just the right gifts for my three small children. At the last moment, while I was in Michaels selecting some last-minute ornaments for the tree, I absent-mindedly picked up three mesh bags of polished rocks for one dollar each. Inexplicably, on Christmas morning, unwrapped and resting at the bottom of the red velvet stockings, they were the biggest hit.
Perhaps the way to have a great life is to not think about it too much. Don’t sweat the wedding plans so much. Don’t attempt to throw the birthday party that proves how much you love your daughter. Don’t expect that blind date to knock your socks off. Just listen to the rain. Quietly stare at the clouds. Sit on the porch. Stroke a polished rock. Transcendence will find you, between one breath and the next.