A couple of months ago, I started seeing a spiritual director who is a Sufi. Though I knew little about Sufism, I knew that I loved the poetry of Hafez and Rumi. I knew that the spiritual director came highly recommended by a woman from our Quaker meeting. I knew I needed to talk with somebody.
I walked into the open living area of her sunny 1950s ranch and laid my purse at the feet of a black chair. A glass pot of steaming water and assorted cups and teas were arranged on a bamboo tray. I glanced at the tea, calming, soothing. I took a cup just to be polite. I have little space in my life for gentle drinks, gentle anything. I can’t chug hot tea, can’t get a “hit” that will allow me to write and edit, wash dishes or do laundry, late into the night. I have no time for relaxation. I’m fueled by massive lattes and far too much Diet Coke. I need energy surges to power me through my overfull life. I am a barge, and caffeine is the only thing holding this rusty ship together.
The Sufi and I spoke then — have spoken at length since — about my work, my writing, my family and my spiritual path, and about how all of these are, down at the place where things matter most, merely different faces of the same thing. Years after escaping fundamentalist Christianity, I still tend to think first in terms of black-and-white. “Should I begin a structured meditative practice?” I ask the Sufi. “Or start by organizing my work life?” Always one thing or the other. Which is my priority: my family life or my creative life? My body or my spirit? Sacrificing sleep in order to accomplish my writing goals, or preserving my sanity?
“You take care of a lot of people,” notes the Sufi. “Who takes care of you?”
Despite the new attention I’m paying to my spiritual life — or perhaps because of it — I have begun to feel anxious. I’m tired from juggling multiple projects on top of all the demands of mothering. All of these things feel like mandatory credits, not electives or extra-curriculars, so which could I drop? The book deadline? My twin sons’ 5th birthday swim party? The work promotion? Student-teacher conferences? The pumpkin patch outings, the Thanksgiving potlucks, the Christmas programs? I hunker down, knowing that life will get harder before it gets better, and I expect it will get better. But right now, I feel inordinately alone.
One of my closest friends recently went back to work, putting an end to our regular coffee shop work sessions and to my one reliable in-person connection with someone who is actively trying to change the world. A loved work friend turns me down — too busy — when I ask an important favor. I start a new job with a steep learning curve. Exhausted and overwhelmed, I wonder: Who am I doing all this for? Am I making any difference at all? Right on schedule, at precisely age 40, existential angst grips me. I wonder if anyone else cares about my efforts besides me.
Centuries ago Rumi wrote: “Oh soul, you worry too much. You have seen your own strength. You have seen your own beauty. You have seen your golden wings. Of anything less, why do you worry? You are in truth the soul, of the soul, of the soul.”
I come to the Sufi because I want to, need to, reconnect with my soul. I can’t imagine that I am the soul of anything. We talk about creativity and intuition: about the senses I feel in my body, and about the words I hear in my head, during those times in my life when I feel connection with the Divine. Sensations and words I haven’t felt or heard much lately.
I hope I haven’t killed my soul with this crazy life of mine.
The words circle back: Oh soul . . . why do you worry?
Asking a mother why she worries is like asking a sparrow why it sings. Isn’t worrying in the job description? I worry about my children’s health, about the world we live in, about how I’ll keep them safe. I agonize over abandoned children in orphanages overseas and fret because there is no way I can save them all. Sometimes, everything that’s wrong in this world feels just too overwhelming. I want to make a difference — but I feel like I’m accomplishing hardly anything.
Then in the next few days, quick, like shots — bam, bam, bam — my best friend from high school calls, my gone-back-to-work friend surprises me for lunch, a fellow author writes to tell me how grateful she is to have found a friend on the journey.
“I’m feeling much better today,” I tell my best friend from high school. “I think I’m going to be okay. You know how sometimes it feels like the Universe just lays a hand on your shoulder and says, ‘It’s going to be okay’? I really like it when that happens.”
“I like it, too.” She thinks for a moment. “I wish the Universe would do it more often.”
“Me, too,” I say.
In the Pacific Northwest, where I live, it rains much of the year. Often, people say: “Oh, I could never live there. I couldn’t stand the rain. It’s too depressing.”
But those of us who live here know that our evergreens and tall grasses and wide, wide rivers need those rains. It’s a lot to slog through at times, and by the end of March winter feels as though it will not ever end. But finally, eventually — after many months without a discernible break — blue skies prevail. Every year, I forget that it happens this way. And every year, the sun’s reappearance catches me off guard: the first balmy day a startling and soothing and wondrous gift.
I go back to see the Sufi, and this time I reach for a cup without hesitation. I choose my tea. Blackberry. I pour the water over the bag, triggering rivers of color, an amethyst pool. I peer into the cup in my hands as if it holds answers, searching for the soul, of the soul, of the soul.