Every corner and the spaces in between had heaps of the stuff that builds up in basements; trashy trinkets that would fare better in thrift stores, boxes that belonged in recycling and tons of old books, papers and computer parts from previous incarnations of my family's life. And it was all covered in gravelly bits of stone that kept crumbling off the walls of our century-old house, which I dutifully swept up every summer. Those crumbly bits would, I feared, someday cause the walls of our basement to suddenly buckle and give, sending us all to our deaths.
But no such deadly drama was before me today. No, the stone walls stood silent and steady sentinels as I began the challenge of making a dent in this disorder. It took a certain standing against the clutter in the basement of my mind to even begin this task, and I didn't want to delay one more moment, now that I'd finally taken the first step.
I looked at boxes containing university papers and the archived remnants of the church we used to belong to before it folded. Another year, I thought. I'll stick to more manageable chunks for now. And that's when I spotted the yoga head-stander. For people who don't do yoga, there are all kinds of "props" which assist in the yoga experience. This one was made to help people do the headstand pose before they mastered the real thing. It looked kind of like a cushioned toilet seat in the shape of a "u". I realized that I'd never really used it consistently, and in my valiant efforts at cleaning, I decided to give it away. The problem was where to give it. Certainly the local thrift store wouldn't know what to make of it. I continued tidying, sorting, throwing away and sweeping, all the while wondering what to do with the head-stander.
Heather had been my first yoga teacher, someone who had encouraged me on my path for seven years before I began going to another place closer to home. She had helped me stick to yoga and its spiritual teachings in the days when my emotions and loopy thoughts seemed much more authoritative. I had always been grateful to her for that. But she had also started me on another path, innocently enough, which I later had to give up when I realized it was doing damage. The path was neither Buddhist nor Christian. It was the path of herbal healing.
Heather seemed to have a cornucopia of knowledge about many ailments, which students asked her about at every class. My primary ailment was my headaches, which struck month after month like an unwavering foe despite the many remedies I tried. The reader may not know how understated the phrase "many remedies" is. On Heather's suggestion, I tried pills, powders and diets which promised I would be cleansed within. I listened to acupuncturists, alternative doctors and colon cleansers who all nodded knowingly, saying that if I stuck to their (often costly) program, I would be healed. I bought a head-stander, hoping by reversing my blood flow the pressure would ease. I even went to a hypnotist, under whose guidance I discovered the "headache room" and the "healing room" within my psyche. (Strangely, it's the headache room that remains more in my imagination today.) Friends would sometimes suggest healing remedies they'd read about in magazines, and I would smile my thanks. They didn't know I was miles ahead of them, and I was usually too embarrassed to admit it. My remedies were piled up high, like the boxes in the basement I was in now, empty arsenal in my war on the enemy. Sometimes one remedy would have limited effect, and I would stand up taller for a few months, but there was never one that lasted.
My friends always reassured me that they loved me, headache or not, and that I wasn't some freak outside God's company of fools. When I was at my lowest, it was their faithful loyalty that got me finally believing they were right. And that was when I began learning that I didn't need to be cured of my headaches. Maybe they weren't the archenemy I had to defeat so my life would be closer to perfection. And the learning happened in a way I wasn't expecting.
"Snake oil!" my mentor Paul declared one day when I told of another herbal possibility. "It's all snake oil! It's like you're addicted to it. Why don't you give it up?" Far from showing lack of compassion, Paul had been one of those loyal friends who always saw God's eyes gleaming behind my eyes no matter what human foibles clouded them. It was his love of God and faithfulness to his friends that got me wondering what on earth he meant. My first inclination had been to defend the herbal kingdom I had stacked around me. How dare he question these stonewalls! But I gave him a second chance. What could he mean?
Maybe rather than ridding my life of headaches (something that seemed out of my control anyways), I could see the pain they brought as an opportunity to rely on God in ambiguous circumstances, just like Christ had when he entered human existence. I was not the God of my own life, nor could I construct my own reality by my actions. All I could do was lean into the truth that I was loved, in the midst of limitation and illness, not once I was cleared of it. As the 14th century mystic Julian of Norwich once said, "What is, is good." This was not to say that all that happened, like physical pain, was good intrinsically but rather that "in God, all that is - is good." Maybe it was time to suspend my judgment and bring it all to God, trusting that every single thing that happened in life could lead me to God. And who was this God? A mystery to be sure, but no doubt Someone who loved us all with a suffering love and with full understanding of our condition.
What is, is Good
Well, like the rest of life's lessons, this one hasn't been mastered in one easy step, or even mastered at all. It took a scary (but in the end benign) breast lump and a mysterious eye ailment (still not cured) to drive the lesson deeper in recent months. Again and again this year, I've been shown that the herbal path is not for me. I've stopped my phone calls to various practitioners, given away my herbal healing bible, and refrained from buying vitamins. I haven't been cured, but I'm beginning to understand that cure is not the point.
As I cleaned the clutter in my basement, I was suddenly struck by an idea of what to do with the head-stander. I phoned up Heather, my old teacher, and told her I would donate it. She could sell it to one of her students and give the money to the Tibetan cause she felt so passionate about. She was elated with my suggestion, saying she coincidentally was just now hosting a Tibetan monk in her home who was giving talks and private consultations in Winnipeg. When I finally knocked on her door a week later, head-stander under my arm, she welcomed me and asked about my life. I told her about my eye and she said that Sonam, the monk, was free at this moment and could possibly heal me. I was of course tempted. Maybe this was a call, the answer to prayers! But I realized I didn't feel comfortable with this suggestion. Sonam seemed a kind and wise man, and I had no reason to doubt that he had the gift of healing. But I didn't feel called to this path, I had to admit. I had been down it so often. My healing ironically lay in accepting limitation and not being cured, at least for now. "No thanks, Heather," I replied.
And so it was that I finished cleaning my basement for another year. I didn't scour the corners and finish dealing with every last detail of past lives. No, I just cleared some paths to walk on, filled a few boxes to give away to the Salvation Army and left the situation at "good 'nuff for now". Those walls, imperfect as they were, would hold for another year, I had no doubt.