Tuesday, May 13, 2003

[ Note, six months later: I seem to have mixed up "padma" and "ratna" in this post. The padma "Buddha family" is the family associated with greed and passion and hungry ghosts. ]

Someone asked why I was doing all this, so I thought I'd take a shot at answering that. Not that it's such a good thing, usually, to have a firm idea of what you wnat to get out of any Dharma practice. but it's the obvious question to someone on the outside looking in. It's a lot of trouble, even at my mild pace: an hour or an hour and a half per day -- so why do it?

The answer's a long one, though.

Nancy Mairs wrote, in Ordinary Time, "Each life must hold one, I think: one pain that overarches and obscures all others, one haunting irreversible fault for which one can never atone."

For me, that pain is treachery to, and with, Marina. Why do I choose that particular wrongdoing to be my favorite pain? I've done lots of other things wrong, some of them possibly -- probably -- more destructive. The answer rises at once, clear and emphatic: because this is a wrong that I'm not sure I wouldn't commit again, in exactly the same way. I haven't released it. No wrong that I wouldn't do again could hold that kind of power, retain that capacity for inflicting pain over and over.

Marina was my best friend in graduate school. Our best friend. The three of us, Martha and Marina and I, ate ice cream and went to movies and read books together, laughed and delighted each other. We all had come from the West Coast, from radical colleges where we were queer fish who read Shakespeare and Milton and Tolstoy, loving the dead white hegemony of letters even while we dissented from it. And now we were at Yale, the heart of literary Authority in America, and we had found each other -- queer fish again -- scornful of the purely theoretical trendy radicalism of academics who had never held a shit-job in their lives -- wary of the prep-school-princeton-old-money-born-to-privilege types, a kind of person we had heard of all our lives but never met (people who had never doubted in all their lives that confusing "its" with "it's" was a grave moral failure) -- but mostly, here we were in a place where knowing Latin, or being able to recite all of "To a Skylark", or having read all of Jane Austen more times than one could count, were unequivocal virtues; where people might be pleasant or unpleasant, but were never stupid or incapable of nuance. Coming from the solidly anti-intellectual West, and the ambivalently anti-intellectual New Left, this was paradise. We blossomed. And we loved each other. We should have been friends for life.

So why weren't we? Why have we not seen each other for fourteen years, and why has Marina never answered the occasional emails I've sent after her, into the silence?

You already know why, of course. Because it wasn't enough for me. With skill and persistence, I contrived to maneuver Marina into admitting that were I unattached, she would have had me. I continually pushed, in my low-key, affable way: just a little more physical affection than she was comfortable with. Just a little more emotional intimacy. She was single, in a new place, doing a demanding course of study that inevitably called her worth, sensitivity, and understanding into question, and I was right there to assure her of my deep (and wholly unfeigned) admiration of all those things.

If I had not known what I was doing, there would have been no wrong in this. If I had just fallen in love with her inadvertently, there would have been no wrong in that, either. Such things happen. But I knew what I was doing as I did it.

More -- and maybe worse -- I misrepresented what was going on to Martha. Subtly but pervasively rewrote the scenario. Oh yes, Marina and I were attracted to each other. Yes, this was maybe a problem for Marina sometimes. But oh no, this was no problem for me. And entirely suppressed was the underlying truth, that I was deliberately, systematically exacerbating the situation in every way I could.

We didn't have an affair, though we had sort of a near miss. But that isn't really very relevant, and anyway, that was because of Marina's constancy, sense, and loyalty to Martha -- not because of mine.

Finally, after a couple years, Marina had enough. She began to distance herself from us. I remember one scene, I trembling, saying vehemently, "I'm not willing to be your *acquaintance!* Marina stony-faced. And a conversation between Martha and Marina, retold to me, in which Martha sought for an explanation of the distance, and Marina told her they had never really been such close friends. A heavy, inexplicable blow to Martha.

Marina was lying, of course. She loved Martha. But she couldn't tell her the whole story without compromising us, or misrepresenting something. By that time I think she felt trammeled by the thin web of distortion I'd laid over everything, and just wanted out. If she had to lie baldly to do so, then so be it.

This isn't a tragic story. Marina in fact probably suffered least, in the end, of the three of us: pretty soon afterward, she was happily in love with a wonderful appreciative man. She's a successful academic, still out on the East Coast. Martha and I came back to Portland to deal with death in the family and to fight a long fight against depression. But we got through that, too. No tragedy here either.

I no longer feel much inclined to blame myself. I was confused and unhappy, training for a career for which I knew myself unsuited, anxious and depressed, and spiritually rudderless -- unsteerable, adrift. I did love Marina, as well as Martha. None of that was made up. And anyway, blame is pointless, when it's not something worse -- to wit, a substitute for action. I don't care to measure or rate my guilt. I just want to be able to answer the question "in the same circumstances, would I now act differently?" with a confident, unhesitating "yes."

And that is why I'm practicing Ngondro. I want to work my way to that "yes." Ngondro is supposed to "purify defilements," or, perhaps a better translation, to "clear obscurations." To Buddhists all problems eventually come down to clouded perception. I have some dim sense now of the particular veil of confusion that led me to ruin two friendships and injure a third. Chogyam Trungpa writes somewhere of "ratna," the kind of character associated with generosity and the appreciation of beauty, in its pure form -- in its confused form, associated with greed and seduction. According to him, "ratna" in a confused mind is ovewhelmed and disoriented by its intense perception of beauty, and tries to contain and tame that intensity by somehow possessing it. That rings true to me. Not that I'm too open to beauty, but that I'm not open enough.

The question of how to deal with the intensity of my attraction to women has been -- just glance at my journals at any time in the last thirty years -- the ruling question of my life. Traditional morality, and common sense, would both advise me to just shut it down. Look away. Cultivate indifference. Accept that I can't always get what I want, and move on.

There's always been something in my heart that's rebelled against that advice. I used to think it was simply the pushback of compulsive, obsessive habit. But it's more than that. It's also the conviction that in shutting this down, I'd be shutting down the best part of me, shutting down all I really have to offer the world.

One Spring afternoon, after the grimy, frigid slush of the New England winter was behind us, Marina and I were walking under a pure blue sky. We turned a gothic stone corner and there was a newly blossoming cherry tree, every petal glowing, etched sharply against the sky, breathtakingly beautiful. I turned and hugged Marina, for sheer joy and astonishment and delight. I don't remember that either of us said a word; we just hugged and walked on. Marina sort of laughed at me and shook her head.

That, maybe, is what "ratna" can look like, when it's unconfused. That's the clarity I want to uncover by practice. That's why I'm getting up at five in the morning, murmuring words in Tibetan and dropping down on my belly over and over. To be able to say "yes" to that cherry tree, and that hug. And to be able to let them go. Which comes, maybe, to the same thing, in the end.

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