Seriously, I thought when our youngest went off to college this past fall, I would finally experience the empty nest. Not that I didn’t love having Allie and Matt home; I loved raising them and watching them grow into wonderful young adults, and I look forward to their visits back home.
Still, the idea of less laundry, more dinners out, fewer schedules to take into consideration, and greater spontaneity held some appeal.
Turned out all these notions were more in theory. Sure, there were no family dinners with the children to prepare or rush home for, no school events to attend, but that didn’t mean a day in Boston could spontaneously turn into cocktails and dinner with friends in the city. Oh no, no, no, no, no. In fact, I was immediately reminded of a joke I heard years ago.
A priest, minister and rabbi were debating when life begins. The priest said, “I believe life begins at the moment of conception because therein lies the potential for life.” The minister said, “I believe life begins as the fetus grows and becomes viable.” The rabbi looked at them and said, “I have to disagree with you both. I believe life begins when the kids go to college and the dog dies.”
Now wait. Before you think I’m an awful person, let me assure you that I love our dog, Karma. But really, she is truly high maintenance. She is a small dog (a cotton du tulear…just like the kind of dog Syd Arthur has) with an even smaller bladder. We’re really not comfortable leaving her for longer than five hours at a time. The stains on a particular carpet (where I have used enough Resolve carpet cleaner that I bet you couldn’t even find them right now) attest to this fact. So we have to make sure that we are home to walk her or let her out in the yard, or that we have made arrangements with someone else to do so. Plus, Karma is a really picky eater. Wait, given I used to treat eating disorders and eating issues, let me rephrase that in a more positive and accepting light. Karma is a really selective eater.
How selective you ask? Sometimes even steak tips on the grill don’t speak to her. Our vet tells us this is very common with smaller dogs like Karma who, by the way, we named so we could say, “Good Karma,” a lot. But really, sometimes we have to say, “Bad Karma.” Still, she’s so cute, what are you going to do but love her, feed her the best you can, and curtail your own freedom and wish to go with the flow (now that you have an empty nest) to make sure Karma’s flow goes outside, and not on the carpet.
And that’s not the whole story; my family is expanding. I’m in my last trimester of pregnancy with Syd Arthur. That’s right, my new novel feels like my new baby. She will be born into the world on April 15th, and instead of relaxing as much as I can in my semi- empty nest, (with Karma following me wherever I go) I am already experiencing the “nesting” instinct I felt when carrying my daughter and son.
I am trying to prepare for her arrival: What room will suit her best? Where will I keep the shipment of books that the stork (okay UPS) will be bringing so very soon?
I am picking out birth announcements: I'm handing out postcards to friends and yes, even strangers to advertise the book. They are cute, with one side boasting the cover of the novel where Syd Arthur is front and center, and the back offering a brief synopsis of the book.
I am planning welcoming events: Inviting people to attend venues where I will be bringing Syd Arthur and introducing her…
And I wake up in the middle of the night worrying about her health: Will she be perfect? Will there by any undetected typos remaining in the final book?
And I wake up in the early morning hours worrying about her future: Will she be liked? Accepted? Get favorable reviews on Amazon? Will she be invited into book clubs, taken along on vacations, enjoy a nice spot on a bookshelf? What will her future be like?
See what I mean? This is no empty nest. I am pregnant with my book, full of worry and excitement like any expectant mother. As I breathe deeply into any contractions I might detect or imagine, I realize that instead of the contractions of labor, I am experiencing the expansiveness of labor. At this moment, I have a dog who sits by my feet as I write my blog, and a husband in an office downstairs who, for the past two years has begun working from home. When it comes down to it, I realize I love my un-empty, empty nest. And when our children come home from college, brief though their visits may be, I will take great pleasure in the growing fullness of that nest once again. And just imagine. They will soon get to meet the new baby in the house, even though Syd Arthur, the main character in the book, is old enough to be their mother….
For many, many years, I have considered myself a Jewish Buddhist or what is now commonly referred to as a JuBu. To be honest, I found the Bu part way more interesting than the Ju part. Maybe it’s because I grew up Jewish and found synagogues lacking in spirituality. Maybe it was because I found that I was an observer rather than a participant in the services offered. It could have been due to a number of reasons, but the fact remains that Buddhism, to me, spoke of a spiritual path one could travel down the road toward true self-transformation and enlightenment. Brown rice and tofu spoke to me in whispers of the Four Noble Truths, while my Jewish roots spoke to me of oven-roasted brisket breathing down my neck with onions and heaviness.
Over the years, I have begun to rediscover Judaism in new ways that enhanced my understanding and interest in the religion of my birth, and these new ways of practicing Judaism have had the reciprocal affect of reinforcing my love of the Buddha’s teachings.
But a few weeks ago, when I went on a pilgrimage to India called: In the Footsteps of the Buddha, I experienced an unexpected surprise.
There is an old Liza Minnelli song that I remember from my youth called, Ring Them Bells. One of the verses sings:
Gather around, I’ve got a story to tell,
About a Manhattan lady that I know very well.
She lives at five Riverside, her name is Shirley Devore,
And she traveled ‘round the world to meet the guy next door.
Okay, what does this have to do with me? I’m not from Manhattan, and the man I married lived across the hall from me in college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; we didn’t meet across the world…
But I kept thinking of these lyrics while I was in India. I had always wanted to walk in the footsteps of the Buddha figuratively, by following this spiritual path, and literally, by seeing the sacred sites of Buddha’s life. So there I was, celebrating my 50th birthday on this pilgrimage and you know what I remember so clearly? Looking out at the mustard fields where the Buddha walked with the yellow/orange sun setting at dusk on a Friday night and all I could hear in my head were the melodies of ushering in Shabbat. Maya fe hayom, Shabbat Shalom (What a beautiful day, Shabbat Shalom). And tunes like Shalom Rav, and Osey Shalom…I was missing the joy I have rediscovered in celebrating Shabbat at my new shul where the joy is contagious and the day deeply spiritual. I ached for that experience across the world while I was in India, not imagining for a second my Ju was so profound in my identity as a JuBu. I hadn’t realized just how important my celebration of Shabbat each week had become until I was far away from my shtetl.
Chalk it up to two wonderful rabbis in my life who accept me as I am, JuBu and all, and who embody the compassion and wisdom found both in the Torah and the Buddhist sutras. Still, I can’t help but think part of it is like Liza Minnelli’s song; sometimes it takes traveling across the world to find what you had all along, right in your own backyard.
I’m back from my pilgrimage in India, looking out the same kitchen window at snow that has become outlined in brown from days of dirt seeping into the edges of mountains of drifts. How is it that only last week, I was looking out the window at a sea of yellow as the mustard fields spread out before me? February in Boston is about white turning to brown, and bare branches awaiting the birth of spring.
But winter in India? The land is pulsating in color. Rich brown earth and muddy ponds with pink blossoming lotus flowers. Saris in burnt orange, lemon yellow, deep turquoise and blood red, glistening with sequins and embroidered with patterns to dazzle. India is about green that springs you awake as you watch a woman working in the field, her magenta sari flowing in a sea around her.
Traveling in the footsteps of the Buddha, I find bamboo groves filled with banyan trees, and groves full of mango trees all under a blanket of blue sky. Oceans of saffron and maroon robes flap in the wind as monks meditate and finger their red-rust colored mala beads. In the forests, there is mist and ponds thickly covered with duckweed. The caves where the Buddha meditated are dotted with colorful prayer flags of white, red, green, yellow and blue, to commemorate and celebrate these sacred sites.
Ancient brick stupas glisten with etchings of gold while yellow, orange and pink blossoms grace the sites in offerings. Sunrise at the Ganges bursts forth with the colors of life and death as the cremation ashes are spread into the river.
During the day, the chaos of the village streets is littered in trash and dotted with carts selling vegetables: flowers of white cauliflower cradled in their green leafs, silky green beans, red potatoes and deep orange carrots. The soil rises into the everyday life of people working the earth.
At dusk, over fields that give way to streams filled with Sarus Cranes, the hot yellow orange ball of fire offers a perfect hovering circle. As time passes, the setting light of the sun becomes an artist on the canvas below creating questions and possibilities with the brush of reflection.
Everything arises and everything passes away. The white brown snow out my kitchen will melt, and the bare branches will soon blossom with green leaves and pink flowering buds. The monsoons will arrive in India. Life is fleeting, and that understanding makes me aware of just how bittersweet the moments are. But that is also what allows me to open to each moment with a new understanding and with gratitude for just this: just this very moment. I look out my window again, and the white brown snow fills me now with delight. For it speaks to me of the preciousness of today, of just this. The colors of life as it is…