One degree of separation, gratitude and community
It is morning and I am drinking coffee, reading the paper, and fielding interruptions from the kids in a parody of my own routine ordinariness when my phone rings. It is my friend Steph, whom I’ve known since we were in our mid 20’s with no one more complicated to care for than a handful of animals. She made our wedding cake 12 years ago, zucchini with thick, chocolate frosting. I took a walk with her less than a week ago. She has learned that her daughter has leukemia. “I can’t believe I’m speaking that word,” she says through tears. “This is a game-changer.”
If there are six degrees of separation between everyone on this planet, there is exactly one degree of separation between everyone in Durango. Going food shopping is like old home week; I make half my social plans in the produce aisle. I know people who go to the farmers market strictly to “catch up with friends.” I’ve run into people I know miles out in the backcountry, and I’ve yet to take a plane into or out of Durango where I didn’t know someone aboard (Including, last flight, the guy who used to buy a pound of dried mint at the herb shop I managed, and joke “How do I explain this (baggie of dried herb) to the cops if I get pulled over?”). Facebook is the digital representation of this interconnectedness (I have 103 friends in common with my friend, Sheryl, who I met here in Durango.) Even the dogs are in; Rose scored a new dog-walking client when a jogger recognized the dog she was currently walking and got my number to sign her dogs up.
I have a very strong feeling that Steph’s daughter will ultimately be OK (Just as certain people in our life had very strong feelings that Col would be OK when he was born 3 1/2 months early. When Col was 2 weeks old, Dan’s friend, Robert, flew to Denver, rented a sportscar, and took Dan on drives to see the bighorn sheep in Georgetown. He told us, “Col will be fine. You both have very good genes.” Robert is a biologist). Steph’s family will go through some very hard things in the next year, and when they can’t hold themselves up anymore, the net of this community will catch them, relieving the ordinary burdens a family faces, so they can focus on the extraordinary. (Stay tuned on the old church committee of Facebook for ways you can help the Harris family).
There have been some devastating losses in this community in the past few months. Parents and children, their deaths rippling out across our collective hearts. In the following weeks friends greet each other with extra long hugs, clumsy sentences, and the shaking of heads because often there just are no words. But we show up with food, donations, any comfort we can spare. I’ve had two impromptu grief/hope/hug sessions with my friend Kate because she was walking by my house at the right time. Each time I felt my world pull tighter, closer.
I keep wondering: how do you prepare for these game-changers? How do you go about your life, drinking coffee, reading the paper, fielding interruptions from your children, knowing that in the shadows of this ordinary moment, life is a dangerous, wonderous and unpredictable place?
When I was pregnant with Col, after suffering an unusual 2nd trimester miscarriage a year before, I was buoyant. I loved how my belly was rising like bread dough, loved the indoor tickles of baby feet, and the feeling that if this life I was growing had a brand name, it would be: world’s luckiest secret.
Eugene’s eyes smiled behind his John Lennon glasses, his closely cropped, dark hair hugging his head like a tight-weave black carpet, freshly installed. “If you are joyful, then be joyful! We don’t prepare for disappointments or tragedy by worrying. We also know that experiencing joy doesn’t bring down the wrath of tragedy, nor does it equate to being immune to disappointment. In fact, nothing will make you entirely immune to disappointment, so you might as well enjoy being joyful.”
Wait, was this the Ben and Jerry’s school of Buddhism? Just enjoy being joyful? No nifty Zen tricks or mind-bending efforts which lead, like a lighted runway, directly to the prize of enlightenment? No need to imbibe happiness in careful moderation as if it were something on which one could dangerously overdose? No outwitting joy like the broad-ankled Eastern European matriarchs of my family line, whose superstitions about not letting the evil eye catch you gloating over your own good fortunes, are lodged like a splinter in my DNA?
Two days later I was emergency air-lifted to Denver, my joyous pregnancy a medical crisis. Everything Eugene Cash had said was true. It’s still true. Scouting around the corner, bracing oneself for the tragedy in the distance does not equate to protection. There is no protection, no way around heartache but through the sticky, hot center.
And so we go on being grateful, recognizing that this life is ridiculously precious, and equally out of our control. Maybe remembering this helps us love better, picking ourselves up and letting the small grievances fall away. It’s like that old physics equation: gratitude → generosity →happiness → more gratitude. Gratitude pries that crazy heart muscle open, letting in more light than you ever thought possible.
There is a tradition in the Dharma Center I attend, after meditating and listening to the Buddha’s teachings together, we dedicate all the goodness that arises from our practice to all beings. I would like to dedicate any goodness that arises from contemplating joy and connectedness, community and gratitude to lovely little Chloe Harris. Thank you.