I really can’t remember which came first. My crush on words or my longing for spiritual revelation.
Growing up Catholic I enveloped myself in the rituals and sacraments the church offered up to me. First communion, confirmation, Catholic school and its hair-skirt plaid uniforms. A matinee of The Trouble With Angels and I dreamed of following in Hayley Mills’ footsteps by becoming a nun. When I wasn’t at church or in the confessional, the public library was my second cathedral. I’d check out dozens of books over a summer and words became my constant companions. I’ve cultivated a journal from the time I was eight or nine to this very day. A rather lacking poem of mine was published in my junior high school newspaper and the writing bug had me. I’ve gone on since then to spend a good parcel of my life crafting one form or another of written expression.
Although my relationship with words has been rather steady, spiritual commitment has at times been wanting. I left the church in my early teens and since then I’ve been searching with a lost hunger for some sort of divine direction to guide me home. Along the way there have been my explorations into the world of Jesus freaks, New Age metaphysics, Paramahansa Yogananda’s teachings, and Unitarian Universalism. All seemed to hold my gilded passion for a time but then their luster waned and I again found myself questing for more lasting answers.
Then along came Buddha. For the past five years or so I’ve been settling deeper and deeper into my Theravada Buddhist practice. For me that means a commitment to daily meditation, more retreats, putting real effort into a mindful life and staying as present as I can. As a householder, a term denoting someone in the lay life vs. a monastic, I am in the world; working, buying groceries, riding the bus, balancing my cheque book. I break things and lose things and want more things and in the midst of all that longing I sometimes pluck the perfect words from the ether to help me along on my path of this thing-full existence. Just a few feet away from my meditation cushion and altar is my other place of practice: my writing desk.
It’s where I’m sitting now, where I write articles, posts for my blog, edit submissions to Life As A Human and hone my craft. There have been the transitory times of writing drought, times when either I or the words went on sabbatical. Abandonment from or by one’s muse can muddy the waters of a writer’s creative flow, but sometimes life’s eddies and deltas beckon us on warm inlets of tempting diversions. I’m grateful that over the years of my comings and goings from my commitment to writing the words have been generous in returning, much like the tide.
For awhile now the yearnings to become a nun have been arising again more frequently. And Hailey Mills is nowhere in the picture. Instead the desire to commit solely to meditation and study feels like providence to me, even taking into account the distinct assurance that DVDs and lattes and dark movie theatres will be few and far between in a new life of robes, alms bowls and a clean shaven head.
It’s a direction I realize would cast me upon the waves of an entirely different sea of life. A friend of mine who had been a Buddhist monk told me that as I move more resolutely from householder to monastic I would at some point have to set down the writing. When he first told me that, a gnawing dismay swelled up in me. Give up writing. I couldn’t imagine giving up something that had illuminated the dark passages of my years and quenched the thirst I had to share my voice with the world.
Imagine my surprise over the last few months as I watched my desire to write slowly evaporating. In a sense I was relieved. I had imagined abandoning my laptop to a vault where I would only have visitation rights once a week to type out an email or two, or perhaps a well conceived haiku. Instead the gift had unwrapped itself and the dismay I once felt has transmuted into a calm acceptance of yet another passage, another letting go in this life of comings and goings.
A few weeks ago I ran into Ruth Ozeki on a busy street corner of my home town. She was here for a reading that night of her latest novel, A Tale for the Time Being, a book that was short-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize for Fiction. I first met Ruth when we both lived on a small island in British Columbia where we shared not only a common love of writing, but also our path of Buddhism.
Catching up on that sun-soaked day I mentioned to Ruth my leanings towards ordaining as a nun and the fading of my desire to write. She was the perfect person to talk to about these changing winds in my life for besides being a published author, Ruth is also a Zen priest. I asked her if she had experienced a waning of words in her practice. Ruth smiled and said she had, guiding me to an article she had written last year about the experience. “It will come back”, she said. “It will.”
And it has. I find now that I can sit with more presence in watching the tides move in and out of my days, my hours and moments arising and disappearing in this holy now. For this time being, the words are gifts, and each one comes wrapped in gratitude.