If She Can Bear the Longing
Whether meditating or doing headstands, Susan Moon’s small self continues to reach for something beyond.
by Susan Moon
When I was a child, I found a secret place in the bayberry bushes. In the summers my family floated free from the known world—the world that was measured by carpools and sidewalks—and went to the seashore. It was lonely for me there; I felt alone in my separate self, in my dungaree shorts, with dirty knees and poison ivy between my toes.
I would put my jackknife in my pocket and slip through a scratchy gap in the bushes and into a clearing the size of a small room—an almost flat piece of land on the flank of a hill, overlooking Menemsha Pond. From this bushy room, I could see sails and the shimmering dunes across the water. I practiced cartwheels and handstands, turning the world upside down. I sat on the grass and whittled sticks.
Back in the house, my father was shut up in his study writing all the time. My mother tied her hair up in a bandanna and tried to keep us kids from bothering him. My little sisters, considerably younger than me, chased each other around the house, screeching. I felt the tension of our family life—a sadness I couldn’t cure, couldn’t even name as sadness.
I lay on the ground that was crunchy with lichen, while the sky did cartwheels above me. As the day came to an end, the sun’s light turned a thicker and thicker yellow and clouds rushed away from me and disappeared into the void on the other side of the horizon. This daily ending, staged with the smell of the bayberry and the crying of the gulls, gave me a lump in my throat—a shout I couldn’t shout out.
I had no playmates and we had no neighbors nearby; my schoolteacher father liked to get away from people in the summer. But it wasn’t just someone to play with that I wanted. I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself.
I read Howard Pyle’s Robin Hood and made plans to start a Robin Hood club when we got back to town in the fall. My friends and I would learn to fight with cudgels and we’d defend the little kids in the neighborhood against the bullies. I would be Little John who, big and kind, was my favorite of Robin Hood’s band. I found a stick of driftwood on the beach and practiced fighting with my cudgel. I made it sing as I swung it through the air.
Books from the public library were company. One summer I went through all of Louisa May Alcott’s, with their plain, cloth library-bindings stamped with gold on the spine. I went kite flying with Jo in Little Men and then with my family in what’s called real time, on a day when my father wasn’t so depressed. He was the captain of the kite; he was a sailor and this was another kind of sail. We got the kite aloft and it grew smaller and smaller as it rose closer to the gibbous moon. Then my father held onto the spool of string and we walked down the hill, climbed into the rowboat, and pushed off from the beach. My father let me put on garden gloves and hold the string while the kite pulled us, frictionless, across the pond. It was magic, as if God himself were up there in the air pulling us along, though my parents didn’t speak of God.
I wondered about God. I wondered who I was and why I was alive. Why was there only my one small self inside my head, serving a life sentence in the solitary confinement of my skull? It didn’t make sense.
The summer I was ten I had insomnia, although I didn’t know that word, and I was afraid I was going to die from lack of sleep. I lay in my bed listening for the ship’s clock as it chimed the watches of the night. Eight bells for midnight. The worst thing about the loneliness was that it was unspeakable. I couldn’t describe it or explain it. Nothing was wrong, but I was lost. Two bells meant one in the morning. I tiptoed into my parents’ room. “I can’t go to sleep,” I said.
I wanted to get into bed with my parents but I didn’t dare ask. I was too old. My mother told me to imagine sheep jumping over a fence and to count them. It seemed like a dumb idea that had nothing to do with the fear that kept me awake but I was willing to give it a try. “If you get up to a hundred sheep and you’re still awake, come back,” she said.
I did—I got to a hundred, easy. “Could a person die from not sleeping?” I asked my mother.
“No,” she said, “No one ever died from not sleeping. Why don’t you read your book, sweetie?”
Back in my bed I read Under the Lilacs, a story about an orphan boy and his dog, and how they ran away from the circus. Four bells for two a.m. I saw the curtains shifting like breath in the moonlight. Six bells for three a.m. The moonlight faded and pulsed again in a silent, scary whoosh—caused unbeknownst to me by a passing cloud—and then I must have slept because I never heard the end of the night watch.
In the morning I walked barefoot to the secret place, watching out for poison ivy. There had been a light mist in the night, so the pale green lichen was wet and soft. I imagined myself an orphan in the wilderness. I would have to gather berries and build a shelter for myself in order to survive. I made a little one first, for practice. I snapped off some twigs from the bayberry bushes and whittled away the little bumps. When I had a nice pile of smooth twigs no more than six inches long, I constructed a lean-to with them. Then I put some stones and shells inside it, to serve as chairs and tables for the fairies. I didn’t exactly believe in fairies, but I assumed there were unseen forces in the universe and I wanted to contact them. They were either very small or very large.
When I lay on my stomach and stuck my face into the sweet-smelling grass, I saw a little red dot that revealed itself to be a spider when it crawled up a blade of grass. To that spider I was as big as a whole world. Then I rolled over on my back, careful not to crush the spider, and looked at the clouds—the layers of them, some so far up that they made the near clouds seem to move in the opposite direction. Compared to them I was a little red spider. I was microscopic and huge at the same time.
I practiced handstands, and the more I practiced the longer I could stay up. I liked the part where I kicked up the second foot, when the momentum took over and inverted the world. I wanted to be able to walk on my hands. I could take the first step—could pick up my right hand and quickly put it down again a few inches forward before I fell—but I wanted to take a second step with the left hand. Patiently, I practiced. It seemed important. When my shoulders got tired, I sat on the grass to rest and rearranged the fairies’ furniture in their lean-to. “Okay, fairies,” I said. “Watch me walk on my hands.” I swung my feet up against the sky and this time I took two steps with my hands before I came down. I gave a whoop. Robin Hood would be proud of me. Maybe I’d even join the circus.
My parents didn’t worry that I was wandering around exploring the natural world by myself; they knew I would follow their only rule: not to go in swimming alone, and the only other local hazard was poison ivy. They didn’t know I was full of longing for something I couldn’t name because I didn’t tell them.
“Susie! Time for lunch!” came my mother’s voice. The other world was calling, the middle-sized world.
As I get older, I find myself coming back to childhood yearnings. I both seek solitude and fear it, just as I did at ten. I’m upstairs in my study in my quiet house. I’m drinking Heavenly Mist green tea and sitting in my favorite chair, with my feet hanging over one arm like a teenager, looking out the window at the redwood tree. I’m wondering who I am and what I’m doing here in this bag of skin, as the old Chinese Zen masters called it. Why am I still the only one inside my separate self?
Twice I wasn’t alone in my body. I could feel the company inside as I watched the bulge of a foot move within my belly. For a change, I liked having someone else with me in the small apartment of my body, though I liked it even more when the babies came out to meet me.
If I had a partner now, I expect it would take the sharp edge off my longing, but I would still feel an essential separation. My longing is not about being alone in my bed; it’s about being alone in my head.
These days, I sit in meditation at home and I go out to sit with others in Buddhist centers. Sometimes I sit in the teacher’s seat, sometimes I sit in the seat of a student, and always I sit in longing. In that slow turn between the out-breath and the in-breath, the question sometimes arises: How do I get out of this bag of skin?
In the Zen tradition we usually face a wall and, therefore, we can’t see each other. When I sat recently with people from the Theravadan tradition, we sat in a circle, facing each other with our eyes closed. I snuck a peek at the others, all of them seeming to sit so peacefully, and I thought, “What are they all doing and how do they know how to do it?” I could feel longing vibrating in my blood; I could feel hot prickles all over my skin. I said to myself, “Hello, longing. I know you.” And in that moment I suddenly felt happy; I liked the prickles. And for the hundred thousandth time, I returned to my breathing, letting the air in the room come into my lungs like the tide—the same air that was flowing in and out of all the other bodies in the room, joining us together. Longing is its own satisfaction. It’s already complete.
All my life I have felt this longing. I guess it’s how I travel in the world; it’s what takes me where I’m going. The longing for connection calls forth a life of connection. The longing that took me to the secret place in the bayberry bushes is the same longing that, as an adult, has made me spend months in a monastery; join a voter registration drive; and set the table for family and friends. My small self continues to reach for something beyond myself. The little girl practicing handstands in that secret place is still with me, keeping me company. If she can bear the longing, I can bear it. I remember that this is who I am: the one who wonders.
From the May 2009 issue of the Shambhala Sun.
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