The Buddha never said this, but it’s the noise of parenthood that propels me to appreciate the quiet. This is probably the greatest lesson I’ve learned so far in the 11 and a half years I’ve been mothering. This is also why I wouldn’t use time travel to go back and change being a parent because these little butterflies that look almost nothing like me have had an active and passive role in shaping me; both the parts I like and the parts I don’t. (For the record, I’d use time travel to visit late 19th century Vienna like in The Little Book or watch my husband play in a park in Herzliya when he was a child.)
They don’t tell you before conception that noise is an occupational hazard of parenting, especially when you are me or you are my husband, both of us easily startled. It should be obvious, I know, but nothing is obvious until it sleeps with its stinky feet flush up against your nose. (The Buddha didn’t say this either.)
To appreciate the quiet, I arranged for an overnight away last week during one of Tel Aviv’s loudest nights to celebrate my husband’s milestone 40th birthday. Dan Panorama Tel Aviv made it easy to find quiet by upgrading our room in the hotel to a VIP suite on the 17th floor far away from the characteristic Thursday night noise and with an incredible view of the sea.
Knowing in advance it was my husband’s birthday, they also sent us up a complimentary bottle of wine and other goodies (travel tip: always tell the hotel when you are celebrating a special occasion. They want you to feel special.)
Taking advantage of Tel Aviv’s annual White Night, we headed over to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art to explore. Nothing like a few hours of mindless meandering and contemplative staring to help you completely forget you have children (also helps that I completely trust my kids in the care of their grandparents.) We spent a lot of time in David Nipo’s “I Returned and Saw Under the Sun” exhibit of figurative-realist paintings; astounded by how real his figurative-realistic paintings come across. It was difficult not to touch the canvas to confirm the images were created from paint and not photography.
The next morning after a fantastically enormous Israeli breakfast buffet, my husband wanted to ride bikes. I wasn’t so eager because we were in the middle of a heat wave — even at 9 am near the beach the air felt oppressive. But I humored him and was glad in the end.
We rode up the beach and then through city streets, stopping at a vintage shop where I bought a record (which I can’t play) and a set of books on tape (which I can) and then headed back through the city to the Dan Panorama to clean up before checking out.
I noticed as I was dressing that I was dressing for life with children. The previous afternoon I wore my strapless dress with nothing underneath (nothing but underwear, dirty mind!) I wasn’t worried about having to bend down to pick up a crying child, nor was I concerned said child would want to grab me, as my children often do, without thinking what gravity will do to a strapless dress when it meets with a tiny clutched fist.
I can’t say I didn’t want more — more time dressed like the woman who didn’t need to worry about the elements. More time meandering off schedule. More time listening without paying attention. I wanted more.
Harold is in his mid-sixties when he receives a letter from a former colleague – a terminally ill woman with whom we understand from the beginning he has unfinished business. On his way to the post office, to drop off a return letter to the woman, he instead decides to deliver the message himself, by journeying on foot across England.
In addition to the truisms delivered throughout the book – wisdom worthy of highlighters and stars in the margins – I walked away with a sense of hope … and of more time. After all, if I am facing and acknowledging my past now at 39, I’m a few steps ahead of Harold, aren’t I? Doesn’t this mean I might actually find my inner peace SOON?
I smile even as I write the words. I know how silly this mindset is – how contrary it is to the intention of finding inner peace.
“Finding it” requires work. “Soon” implies a deadline. Neither of which allows for the relief that I associate with inner peace. Did I learn nothing from Harold Fry? My imaginary book club asks me right now.
What I did learn from Harold is that we always think we are wiser than we are; that “now” we finally get “it.” And this is where we trip up.
At least, this is where I trip up.
So often, I cringe at or even attack my younger self, as if I am oh-so-much-wiser now than I was then. (I’m not.)
As if I am not making the exact same mistakes now that I did then — just with different supporting characters, and saggier boobs. (I am.)
What if the way to inner peace actually is acknowledging we will never truly be wise? Just more aware. Just more willing to learn from our past and from our present. Just more compassionate of ourselves and others when we trip up (again and again and again).
And what if the work to do was actually not such hard work? What if the assignment was to simply be more open to not knowing.
Not knowing the way to inner peace; and saying, “cool.”
Allowing for the possibility of finding it in unexpected places, faces, and moments.
I imagine a fat, happy Buddha smiling at me and nodding.
Bragging moment: I was accepted into the University Honors Program in college. I even got a scholarship.
That letter in the mail was likely the pinnacle of my academic career. That, or the poetry award I won from Mr. Schaeffer at the end of 9th Grade.
I was your classic underachiever in school. And in retrospect, I completely wasted the distinction The George Washington University placed on me.
In order to maintain the scholarship and my place in the program, I was required to take at least one class each semester offered by the honors track. As always, I did the bare minimum. I followed the rules and aimed for a grade acceptable to me and my parents. (A “B” or above.)
The only classes I remember are two semesters of “An Introduction to Soviet Cinema”– from which I walked away better educated about cinematographic license and with the easiest “A” I ever earned — and my senior seminar with Professor Harry Harding, an expert on Asian-American relations.
I don’t remember why I took this class with Harding, since my interest area was the Middle East. I probably heard from someone that he was kind or didn’t give a lot of homework. I do remember, however, the brilliant research thesis topic I dreamed up for the paper I had to write at the end of the year:
“The Influence of Zen Buddhism on American Pop Culture”
I wish I could get my hands on that paper. And, then completely rewrite it. Because whatever I wrote was complete crap and/or borderline plagiarism, I’m sure.
This time, if given the opportunity, I’d actually do the research. I’d read more than the three required books. I’d actually do primary research. Find people to interview. Listen to their stories. Imagine what their lives were like. Swim in their memories. Meditate on them. And then produce a paper that truly encapsulated my brilliant findings and analysis.
But, like most 20-year-olds, I hated writing research papers. And this was a 25 page research paper, which was the longest by far I was ever required to write before or since.
I loved learning, but I was too bound by the rules and the concern for a good grade and the concern for a good job and a good career and a good paycheck and a good pitcher of beer to actually do what I imagine most teachers want you to do — learn about something and carry that education forward into your life.
I remembered this research paper yesterday when I watched a video a friend shared on Facebook.
It’s a series of images that illustrate a lecture given once by Alan Watts entitled “What If Money Were No Object?”
The name sounded familiar. I Googled him. Oh, yeah. He was the guy in my research paper from senior seminar; recognized as one of the key individuals responsible for bringing Zen Buddhism to the West.
I chuckled. Here was the voice of Alan Watts speaking to me — primary research, 20 years too late.
If only the internet had been more than a chat room on AOL when I was in college.
If only I had heard Watts say:
“What do you desire?
What makes you itch?
What would you like to do if money were no object?
How would you really enjoy spending your life?”
I might have spent more time on my research paper. I might have spent more time wondering if this Alan Watts guy was more than just page filler.
What would I have thought if I had been in that crowd? Would Watts have inspired me?
What message would I have taken away from that lecture?
Would I be the philosopher, the novelist, the soap opera star I sometimes wish I was?
“Crowds of students say, ‘We’d like to be painters. We’d like to be poets. We’d like to be writers.’
But as everybody knows you can’t earn any money that way…
When we finally get down to something which the individual says they really want to do, I will say to them, “You do that. And forget the money.”
Amen, I thought to myself, when I heard Watts challenge the audience to “forget the money.”
And then, “I wish someone had said that to me when I was 20.”
Easy for me to say now.
Easy now, at 38 years old, with a steady paycheck and two decades of experience making it on my own.
But would I have been able to really hear Watts then?
Would his words have led me to walk a different path?
I don’t know.
My life might have turned out exactly the same.
I was a lot more stubborn then. A lot less likely to listen to someone wiser than me. I might have done exactly what I did. Graduate. Get a job in a non-profit. Be happy that I was finally earning my own paycheck and had my own money to spend on jeans at The Gap in Georgetown. Or on big scrunchies.
I really wanted my own money back then. I wanted freedom from my parents. I wanted room to make my own choices. I didn’t see any possible way to achieve both freedom and my desire.
Which makes me think Watts’ advice would have registered only as a temporary instigation.
Because in our current society set up, it’s practically impossible to forget the money.
We have to follow our desires in spite of the money.
What you need to know if you choose to forget the money is how you will stay true to your desire when the rest of the world says you need money over everything else. You need to know how you will navigate the expectations of your family, your friends, your neighbors. You need to know how to avoid the pitfalls of consumerism. How to live without a TV; without an SUV; without a weekend getaway.
You need to build your life so that your life is your weekend getaway.
= = = = =
If anyone had asked me when I was 20, I wouldn’t have said then, “I’d like to be a philosopher.”
I wouldn’t have said, “I’d like to be a craniosachral therapist.”
I absolutely would not have said, “I want, more than anything, to be a full-time, paid-loads-for-a-living celebrated writer.”
I didn’t know it then.
And I couldn’t see the way.
And yet, I’ve been fortunate to find my way. To have either landed in or created circumstances in which I’ve been able to recreate my career based on my passions and desires.
I listened to and followed my itch; years before hearing Alan Watts’ speech.
But, along the way, I’ve had to give up desires, too. Ignore certain itches.
I’ve had to choose.
Sometimes I’ve been able to forget the money.
And sometimes not.
Watts does not talk about choices…and consequences.
It’s not easy to follow your desire instead of following the money.
= = = = =
What would I say to a crowd of young people today?
How would I guide them?
I might say something similar to what Watts says: “Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing, than a long life spent in a miserable way.”
I believe this to be true. And I like to think that somehow, accidentally, when I was writing that research paper in college, Watts’ advice penetrated my tired mind as I was lazily investigating the influence of Zen Buddhism on American pop culture.
Perhaps, subtly his words have been guiding me ever since.
But I would also suggest being as flexible as you are determined.
For who knows what you will be when you grow up?
I didn’t. I still don’t.
I still ask myself every day, “What do you desire?”
And then listen for the answer.
Forget the money, yes. But be flexible. At every turn, there is an opportunity if you are primed to notice it.
Ask yourself every day, “What do I desire?” And be strong enough to acknowledge the answer and take action, even if the answer is, “Money.”