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Handprints in the Heart: A Reflection on Love and Loss

It’s been a raw, rainy and cold spring in New England.  An impatience for summer has taken hold as I feel vitamin D deprived. If anything, the slog of the last few months has been a time for quiet reflection.  

I went on my first 7-day retreat of “noble silence” at the Insight Meditation Society in March.  A week of nothing to do but meditate with 100 women, all strangers to me. No friends. No talking. No technology. No reading. No writing. No obligations.

My family and friends at home wondered:  Was it amazing? That must have been so relaxing! How nice to get away for a whole week.  As if I was napping and reading fashion magazines at a spa.

Not even close. It was a week of sitting in silence, walking in silence, sitting in silence, walking in silence, sitting in silence, walking in silence… in a snowbound building and in the most rural part of the state. It was so bleak that the warm glow of a sunset, like a cherry swirl popsicle, was a gift I didn’t know I desired until it appeared. A deep appreciation settled in.

But by the end of the week a sort of transformation took place—in part because of the contrast with what came after. The minute I left I was hit with a reality of life: the hustle and bustle, the noise, the demands for my attention, a work crisis. Perhaps most poignant were the looming changes ahead: My youngest was about to turn 18 and be off to a college far away. We had also decided to move out of our home after two decades. The proverbial emptying of the nest.

If anything, the week of silence helped me to be present with all the uncertainty, to be patient with discomfort, and to practice the deep work of befriending my own mind. This is not easy.

One evening at the retreat the master teacher, Christina Feldman, read one of my favorite poems, Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye.

Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness.

Hearing the poem in the midst of such quietude was a comfort, like the tender hand of a grandmother resting on my shoulder. The young woman next to me began to weep and I wished I could have taken her hand in mine. We were alone, together. And yet the proximity, the felt sense of compassion, was enough for each of us to bear our own thoughts.

The opening lines of the poem linger with me as I clear out closets, discover remnants of child’s play, and make the donation rounds to Savers. Mostly achingly the words sear as I apply and reapply fresh coats of paint to the stair banisters, oily and stained by children’s hands. Covering up the proof of our lives.

The other day my college-bound child flounced on the couch in my home office. She looked up at the ceiling and noticed a dirty hand print. That’s yours, I told her.  “No way.” Yes. You tried on a new white dress for a banquet and twirled on the coffee table feeling so pretty and proud. She didn’t believe that she could have reached that high as a kid. She hopped up and realized that indeed her 11-year old agile self might very well have done just that. One of her nicknames was Jumping Josie after all.  We stared at the smudge for a long while.

…all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness.

We both knew. Same time next year all this would be but a memory. Childhood is like that. It has a shape, many shapes, and then it’s gone. Even the dirty hand print.

 

Still.  I’m not painting over it.

Not as long as I live here anyway.

 

 


P.S. Hop on over my book page to sign-up for Kindness Cure goodies.

Notes: 

You can listen to the poet Naomi Shihab Nye read her poem Kindness at On Being radio.

Photo credits:

Stairs, Jumping Josie, Hand Print (c) Tara Cousineau, 2018

Sunset

Aaron Andary

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