A shatter of glass from the house next door explodes into a crossfire of shouts: “Bitch!” “Whore!” “Dealer!” I slam shut the window to prevent my six-year-old Caitlin from leaning out. My dog Cleo, barking shrilly, paws at the pane. Caitlin tugs at my shirt and pleads to have a look.
The jumble of shouts in the street is now unintelligible. But through the window I see the three women, as I have on so many other evenings. Against a backdrop of bougainvillea, by the late summer garden of penstemon and gaura, I watch them—three generations—outside my window in battle.
Up on the front porch, littered with splintered glass, Grandmama Darlene shields the broken window. Hastening down the steps, Donna, the twenty-year-old granddaughter, screams toward the street, “Get out! I don’t need no whore mama the likes of you!” Invariably the protagonist in these fights, Donna’s mother Dee hollers up from the street, “Can’t I break in my own bedroom window?” Unsteady on her feet—drunk again, and stumbling on her bad leg—she weaves backward towards the corner. She calls up at Grandmama Darlene, “You take in that drug-dealing daughter of mine, but you lock me out to sleep in the street!”
Caitlin, Cleo and I vie for space at the window. “What’s going on?” Caitlin persists. I cradle her chin in my palm, tuck a strand of hair behind her ear, and with a sweep of my arm, shoo her upstairs to her dad.
My nose is pressed against the damp glass, opaque with dog breath and paw marks. Could someone get hurt? I worry. Should I call the cops? Should I try to intervene? Stepping out on my front porch, I scan the block for help, but the neighboring Victorians are dark, the gardens empty.
Donna suddenly leaps toward Dee. Just then I hear the sirens and two squad cars pull up. As the officer handcuffs Dee and escorts her to the car, she calls out, “They throw me out on the street. Everybody hears it.” She points up at me on the landing. “She hears it. Ask her!”
Choked by a conflux of feelings—fear, fascination, anger, I am unable to speak. As I watch Dee pull her bad leg into the squad car, I notice that the hood is up on her jacket. The beat up jacket seems strangely familiar to me. Just noticing it, with the fake fur lining peeking out around the hood, I feel an ache of tears. Why is this?
I turn away. I double-lock my door.
Both as a mother and as my own caretaker in healing from breast cancer, I am trying to cultivate a peaceful life. I am upset with these women for their ongoing fights, for the people they could draw to the block who might threaten the safety of my family. But I am also upset with myself for my failure to respond. I retreat into my home as my sanctuary, deny that this violence ever erupted. Over the years I have tended to deny much of the violence in the world, finding myself reluctant to drive on the freeway, to watch the victims of riots or kidnapings on TV, to read the newspaper reports of atrocities in Bosnia or the Middle East.
This spring, when I emerged from a meditation retreat to news of the Oklahoma City bombing, I felt impelled to give attention to some of the violence that I have spent so many years denying. I took on a new practice. Each morning I would read the newspaper with a particular eye for the articles that I might in the past have glossed over. Then I would write my responses in my journal. The fight on the street I just described found its way into my journal. Sometimes when I began to write, I would be overcome with resistance. Once I even got back in bed and crawled under my quilt, barely able to fight off sleep, even though it was midday. Yet I persevered. Although I wasn’t clear on why, I felt that this process would be crucial to my healing.
As I have continued this practice, I have begun to see how futile it is for me to wall up against the violence in the world. I notice that the violence that I shun outside is inside of me. I am surprised to witness this after twenty years of meditation practice and a lifelong commitment to nonviolent causes, beginning with Ban the Bomb marches as a kid.
Even on the meditation cushion, where so often I have sat with grief and longing, I have not been aware of anger. And then I have been shocked by my sometimes vitriolic outbursts at family—my mother, my sister, my brother, my husband Patrick, my Caitlin.
I have so longed to offer Caitlin a peaceful, loving childhood, an oasis from the crossfire of life’s dangers, and an antidote to my own childhood of slammed doors, fights at the dinner table, yelling, tears and apologies. Yet even though my conflicts with Caitlin are fewer and milder than the ones of my growing up, the pattern spirals down through the generations.
How different, I ask myself, are my family battles—passing from grandmother to mother, mother to child—from the family battles next door? I don’t hurl bottles at windows and fight on the street, but inwardly, I have been ferocious. I attack, defend my turf, shield my broken-open heart.
And I ask myself why some of my explosions with my family have erupted following meditation and yoga practice. The incident that troubles me in particular occurred a year ago on a meditation retreat at Lama Foundation in New Mexico.
While Patrick settles Caitlin to bed in the tent, I begin to sit with the other yogis in the hall. I close my eyes, and sweep my attention again and again, cleansing out the hours of airport diners, changing planes, family spats, and fears about the cancer recently cut from my breast. I rest in the peace I have forged—free of intruding thoughts and feelings.
At the close of the sitting, as I follow the desert path back to the tent, I am absorbed in the deliciousness of the silence. I picture Caitlin, already asleep, Patrick stretched out, waiting for me. Instead, I find them both wide awake in a frenzy of getting comfortable—tossing around sleeping bags, clothes and stuffed animals. This chaos shatters my hard-won tranquility.
In harsh staccato, I zip up the tent, try to push Caitlin into her bag.
“I can’t sleep!” Caitlin yells. “Whisper!” I hiss.
One after the other, Caitlin shouts out her grievances into the silent camp. “I’m hungry!” “My leg hurts!” “I’m afraid of the dark!”
I can feel my body vibrating with tension. “No you’re not!” I insist. “No you’re not!” I grab her, my muscles tense, my breathing short and fast. I feel I have to control her. I am shouting now too, my nails biting into her wrists.
Shocked by my own fierce grip and acid tone, I begin to cry. As we both weep, we cuddle up together with Patrick, and eventually we are all able to sleep.
As I think back on this incident, I begin to see how, fueled by my drive to heal and my hunger for quiet, I had allowed vipassana practice to slip into a concentrated effort to “win” peace for myself. Here I had been practicing for so many years intending to cultivate mindfulness. But in an unconscious effort to control my experience, instead of training my awareness, I had recently begun training my concentration. And how intensely I had wanted to hold on to the fragile tranquility I’d “gained.” How upset I was when Caitlin disrupted it, forcing me to deal with the reality that I could not, in fact, control experience.
In denying Caitlin’s feelings, perhaps I was protecting myself from my own. I couldn’t bear to hear her shout out the pain I was feeling myself (“I’m hungry!” “I’m hurting!” “I’m afraid of the dark!”). On that Lama retreat, a year ago, I never did fully shift my attention to a more allowing awareness. But very recently, after a similar outburst at Patrick, I did something I have never done before. On a weekend at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, I found myself meditating on my own violence.
I took off for the weekend still carrying in my mind the echoes of my recent explosion. Soon after I had settled on my cushion for an early morning sit with the zen students, I began to experience an intense nausea. All the upset from my outburst of anger was stirring in my chest. I swept my attention like surging salt waves in an effort to cleanse out what I felt inside. But my practice in concentration was to no avail. I found it almost impossible to sit through the first period of zazen, to endure the disgust and agitation.
It wasn’t until the second sitting that I recognized my intention. Without realizing it, I had been trying to eradicate my feelings. Could I simply witness this—meet it with curiosity? Cautiously, I began to bathe my chest—with interest, with kindness. I allowed myself to experience the sensations inside like the swarming of a myriad of tiny flies. Beneath that, the inner flesh felt like dead meat. As I continued to attend, I noticed that my interiors felt cut up as if I had raked them with my own fury. I didn’t enjoy this. But I was greatly relieved to stop fighting my feelings.
As my chest softened, memories flooded my consciousness. Among them came the image of Dee’s jacket, the one with the hood that had made me cry when Dee and her family were battling on my street. I remembered an incident from three years ago through which I saw how I was linked to Dee in the dynamics of violence in my neighborhood.
In the midsummer heat of my yard, I am watering my vegetable garden. I love to spray a fantastic whoosh that cascades over the lettuces and squash, back toward the Blue Lake beans, and fans out against the fence between my yard and Grandmama Darlene’s.
In the evening, the doorbell rings. Through the fever of Cleo’s barks, I open the front door. Dee stands there.
“Keep that dog down! That dog don’t like Black folks. . . .” Before I can reply, she tells me, “Your god damn water done ruined my clothes.”
“But I didn’t know . . . I’m sorry. . . where were your clothes?”
“Where you think they were? You know my mother kicked me out! I stack my clothes the other side of the fence.” Then bitterly, “Where else I keep them? You see me come here every day to change my clothes!” She sniffs, her lower lip quivers. Then she swings away and clumps down the stairs.
Several months later, the torpor of Indian summer settles over me and the garden. The air is fetid with factory fumes, exhaust, the stink of rotten landfill. Seeking relief, I water. As the exuberant fountain cleanses the air, awakens the wilted lettuce and burnt zucchini leaves, I am renewed.
Two nights later a pounding at the door interrupts dinner. It’s Dee. She braces herself against the evening wind, hugging something in her arms. “You done gone and ruined my whole wardrobe!” I force myself to look more closely as she whips the soaked, muddy clothes from her bundle: a sweater with rhinestone buttons, a pair of jeans, and the hooded jacket with fake fur lining. ”You owes me! Didn’t I tell you where I keeps my clothes?”
“I’m sorry,” I splutter. “Of course I’ll pay for the . . . I. . . .”
I think of nothing to say. I had allowed myself to forget. I had been absorbed in the world on my side of the fence, exclusively.
How often have I fenced off my own sanctuary in order to win peace? I close my door to the violence on the street in order to keep peace in my home. I cut out the cancerous growth, radiate the precancerous cells, eject sickness from my healthy body. I water my garden to nourish my plants and my own peace of mind, closing off my awareness of the life on the other side of the fence. How often do we all do this, driven by the illusion that if we shut out or eliminate “the other” we will find happiness and equanimity? Grandmama Darlene and Donna lock out the alcoholic Dee to win peace for themselves. And in a family conflict of terrifying scale, Bosnian Serbs “cleanse” their country by exterminating Bosnian Muslims.
As I follow my line of thought, I see also that when I close my eyes and close myself away (on retreat, in solitude), I often shut my heart to the world. Even in the techniques of meditation, too often I use concentration like a laser, annihilating thoughts and feelings. No wonder my practice often fails to carry into my life.
Three years after I watered Dee’s clothes, I am still grappling with what happened. One day I went to the park with my journal and in my scribbling I tried to imagine what it was like for Dee to arrive home on that late summer night to find her clothes in a muddy heap. This was still home for Dee—I had to remind myself—even if the door was locked to her and her clothes were hidden away by the fence. Just as my home is for me, Dee’s home—this space between her mother’s house and the fence—was her sanctuary. I imagined that standing on the street outside her house, Dee would still have been able to feel the inside of the rooms and remember what it must have been like to lie her tired body down on the couch. I imagined that after a walk perhaps across town, Dee must have savored the thought of her zip-up jacket, the one with the fur hood, so snug for a chill late summer night.
As I thought about Dee, I saw how, like me, she would need warmth and protection, and that like me she would long for peace. Years back, before she was locked out, I used to see her through the curtains sitting cozy at her kitchen table and gazing out the window dreaming her own dreams.
Beneath the cravings for excitement and pleasure, beneath the impulse to strike out, I believe that everyone yearns for peace. As I have reflected more deeply on Dee, I sense this must be true. Grandmama Darlene, Dee and Donna, my mother, myself and Caitlin, the Muslims, the Croations, the Bosnian Serbs, everyone. And as I recognize this yearning for peace, at the same time I see how easy it is to slip into the fundamental illusion that peace can be won by the violence of shutting anything out.
I am coming to see that when we posit “this” versus “that,” the possibility of peace is lost, at least for that moment. True peace has to do with inclusion—with sitting in the midst of everything with our eyes open. I can’t find peace in meditation until I open to all that is crying to be heard. And I can’t have a peaceful garden unless I water with my eyes open.
I am not suggesting that I never lock my door, that I take down my fence, that I quit going on retreats or that I stop closing my eyes when I meditate. Boundaries have their place. But I want to remember that the walls between me and you—the ones that allow me to pretend that my actions don’t affect you—are my own creation.
At my house all of the watering hoses, the showers and sinks and the washing machine, are connected to the same water source. Since the time that I ruined Dee’s clothes, I have taken particular care not to splash water over the fence. But because all of the hoses are interconnected, I must muster a tremendous effort to be vigilant. I need to continue to adjust and readjust all of the faucets. If I turn off a hose in the front of the house or the washing machine goes into the spin cycle, the water will suddenly surge out of the hose by the vegetable garden. Once again, a great wave of water will spill into the yard next door, potentially destroying someone else’s things.
We all draw peace from the same pool. I may go on retreat or close myself in my office. But it doesn’t affect me alone. I also run the risk of shutting myself off from Caitlin or Patrick when they need me to hear their cries and tend to their hurts.
So I will teach myself to water my garden with my eyes open. Perhaps I will begin to see through the fences, to recognize the shattered windows and muddied jackets and the sadness of my neighbor as my own.