Purgatory: Canto 27, Threshold
It was like something I’d expect to see at a casino, again I felt like we were in Vegas. I felt that sense of waiting for Sara Brightman or some other popular “light classical” singer to begin a maudlin version of an anthemic aria or hymn. Water surges, strings rise and shiver and one pure, clear note, amplified and tuned, soars in — I could feel it hanging in the air.
I assumed this scene had been more awe-inspiring to those who came before. The fire flickered and danced beneath the surface of the waterfall, making it impossible to see what might lay beyond. I wondered how it must have felt to come to this point as a person who had never lived in a culture where spectacle was an everyday event. Then I realized, I was still thinking of time as an arrow sailing in an arc through the void with me attached to the shaft or the tail or maybe the tip — tied to it somehow. And I thought of myself both missile and target.
Time is not like that. Life is not like that. If it was, then I was one of a host of arrows arcing in every direction at different speeds, landing in different places, some bouncing off the target, some being deflected, some intersecting my trajectory, some racing beyond. And if I ever concentrated hard enough, I could lose the sense of time as a line.
Someone had been standing here before me and would stand here in a time after me but they would be there, also at the same time, as the same point in their lives and to other people this would be both the very same experience and something I would not recognize. They would feel awe or feel as though they had seen it before, all of these points in our lives were in one collective pool and none any brighter, wiser, more or less novel or sophisticated than the others. They were all real, concomitant and still uniquely our own. Elders had taught me that, over and over again as though it were something I needed to grasp and sometimes I almost did. Then other times, my sense of solitary value would rise and twist and there I would be, looking over or up or down from a great height at something I should only have been within.
Never a way to say it clearly. The many times I’d said the Nicene Creed in the process of singing a Mass, the times I had recited the Pesach story during the Seder, hours at the Potlatch, listening as speakers said and repeated the same sentence over and over again until the meaning fractured into a thousand different perspectives — those experiences were designed to bring it closer and sometimes they did but could I express it now? Probably not.
I stood and looked and tried to think into my own depths and at the same time beyond my own borders, to see what made me part of the whole.
In that flaming water was a union of twins who were opposites. The fire streaked and flowed, it dripped to the pool far below and eddied there, exactly as the water did. The water flickered and sprang, mist like tiny sparks, wet our faces and cooled my skin. It pricked the tiny hairs to stand straight up and soothed the heat of the sun away. The sun had nearly set now and its rays were fully on us, streaming from behind a figure that seemed about to speak but the moment stretched on forever.
We were in transition.
Here were the ten minutes between labor and birth. Transition, assumed to be such a temporary state as it is measured by it’s place in the pool of time, but really a state of forever. Ask a laboring woman how long she’s felt this pain. She will tell you, forever. She means it.
At the same time she knows this is the moment she turns toward her own mortality. The life inside will move into the world and she will move too — not to death but beyond this hovering state that comes before giving birth. Maybe it only makes sense if you’ve lived through it. It changes the way women see the world, it makes us different.
I think about the paradoxes embedded in faith. Never more important than when it is faltering. Here. standing in this place, I look at my steady footing and despair. I have come to a halt — but that’s wrong too. This is a pause and the despair I feel standing before this plunge is the despair that comes from thinking anything is forever. This pause will not last.
I wiggled my toes to feel the earth beneath me and thought more about what I was taught to believe. Believe everything, the Elders say. Everything has its truth and that truth is absolute. This is more important when one thing contradicts another because then they are closest of all.
“Believe I am the son of man”. Jesus said, and believe I am the only way to G-d. How many times had I pondered that one to navigate the rows and pews of my own church career. Wise and foolish choices had come from that belief. And in Mary, I saw myself, not a sexless mother but a new one, bringing forth her child by an act of will — holy spirit. So I could believe the Marionites in their depth of devotion to the things that made her pure to them. That was not hard.
What was hardest there was believing in the truth of it. Mary moved into love as a virgin. She did not carry the insults inflected by any man who may have come before into her present. She did not remember the habits of her father, she did not remember the centurions and their cruelty. When she met her son and her husband she did so with an open heart — seeing only them in their lives and knowing that their ways were theirs alone. How many times had I assumed, even said, “men are like that”? How many times had I declined to believe in the sincerity of a person because of my experience with another?
Mary’s attitude to life, “My soul doth magnify the Lord” was the key to living with an open heart and her son? His faith, his teachings, these were the paths taken to union with the divine. The son of man — the result of goodness. The mystery of faith. I had these things with me and more often than not, preferred to leave them aside. On the threshold, they must be carried.
Believe in compassion, said the Buddha. That one was a challenge, it left me feeling naked. Exposed as an octopus laid out by a fisherman, out of control and possibly being made ready to serve only as someone else’s source of nourishment. Compassion was hard. Working on it, a lifelong process. It seemed to invite violence, yet, when it was really in its purest form, it had never caused me harm.
I remembered, to my shame, the time I brought my mother to my cousin’s wedding. Her sight was severely compromised and she relied on my to help her navigate the strangeness of small-town Ontario, a thousand miles from home. We were in a mall, waiting for the wedding party to finish having hairdos and makeup done and I was tired of the family scene. I walked out, past the pretzel stand, past the discount book seller, and she followed. I turned to her and said “I need to get away from all of this for a little while, I don’t want to talk about nail polish and updos. I don’t care about Aunt Martha’s casserole. I just need to breathe a bit.” My mother agreed. She said, “yes, it’s hard to keep that up. Where do you want to go?” and I said — “I meant away from you too.” She started to cry. My heart broke but I took her back to them and walked away so I wouldn’t look weak. This is the most shameful, least human thing I think I have ever done. Standing at the threshold, knowing I would have to embrace compassion meant letting it go. It meant speaking it aloud and then admitting I was the villain then. It meant saying I understood and yet might be that way again or be tempted to be. Letting go of sins is much harder than letting go of blessings. Compassion means exactly that.
Believe in the earth, my Elders taught. And I thought that was easy but it meant making steps to be in places that were difficult. It meant a difficult climb. It meant declining offers of convenience sometimes and it meant speaking out when speaking made me look ridiculous.
In a class, third year university. By this time I was known to be a bit of a prodigy, showing a knack for grasping a theory well enough to turn it over and ask thought provoking questions before most of the rest of the students in the group grasped the basics. I was proud of this and enjoyed sitting quietly in an early morning class, speaking only when called on and making succinct comments that pleased my professor. I enjoyed the role despite the inconvenience of getting through the snow before 9:00 a.m. in the middle of the week.
We came to the section on the philosophy of truth as it related to spoken language. My professor made the distinction between language and verbal communication. Human beings share language, animals share communication, trees and other inanimate objects cannot discern language, therefore they fall outside the realm of moral consideration except in how it relates to human interest.
Listening to my Elders here meant ridicule and inconvenience. It meant stepping down from my role as the smart girl in the philosophy department, it meant sounding like a flake, I thought. The Elders had taught, and I believed, that the fact that we do not understand or discern language or sentiment does not indicate its absence. I said as much and lost the respect of my teacher for the rest of the term and while I could have said it privately — I chose to say it publicly, further compounding the damage to my reputation with the real damage done by expressing ego and disrespect for his role in my life, a kind of blasphemy, it chafed. I was silent for the rest of the term.
Then there were the day-long sweat lodge experiences, the morning climb up the mountain, the respect for the life of another even when I had the power to remove that life for my comfort. Bugs and weeds and curses — they were all in their place and it was not my place to condemn or to condone them. Believe in in what the rock on the beach has to teach you. There, I thought, was a sure path to looking like a fool. On the threshold, it was time to accept that those moments pass, we ebb and flow and do the best we can and try to do better. We are never completely right and never completely wrong and yet, all our absolutes have meaning. We are really here.
Believe in your own ability to discern, to think and to act, the Torah taught. Believe in your moral responsibility for your life on this plane, whether or not you think there might be another. Cherish the place where you have landed and treat it as you would treat your beloved. Heal its wounds, listen to its stories and try to see what it teaches you. Understand your own faith. Act because it is the right thing to do, not out of a hope of reward.
Believe in love. That was the hardest, to believe, even to say, that I could love and be loved. This I was not prepared to do.
Now, with all these things in my head, I stood there and waited for something to lift me out of this place and into the next.
I could tell you about the mountain with the green ferns climbing down its sides, the granite crevices filled with green moss, the deepening blue sky. All of these things looked more like a spot in the forest where this trip had begun than any place we had been since then. The path under my feet felt the same.
I swore I saw a jet trail in the sky, streaking south.
I looked to my right and saw my mother standing there. She held her hands clasped in front of her and twisted her fingers as she looked down at the ground. It was the same way she stood in that terrible little mall, on the slick marble floor so many years ago.
I went to her and took her in my arms and we embraced without the stiffness that had always characterized our contact before. She opened her arms and held me as though she loved me and she said, “You were mine. My child. My great and tragic love. We made mistakes. I’m sorry and I know you’re sorry too. You need to go on now. You are my daughter and will always be, beloved, fair, true to me, but you have to accept more than child, more than daughter — time to go.” She pulled back and stood there, gesturing for me to go. And all I could do was cry.
It felt like forever.
I looked to my Guide and said “Now?” She nodded. I waited for her to step forward. She looked at me and said, “What are you waiting for?”
“Won’t you lead the way?” I asked, frightened. She shook her head. “This is a step you must take alone.”
I stepped into the water, stepped into the flame and cried. I expected to fall but I floated. In that moment I wanted to be anywhere but there. I wanted to be only there. I didn’t want to let go of anything. I wanted to let go of it all.
I stepped through the flame and out to the grass of the next part of the story. And somehow, I was not alone.