Tim and I often quip that if we do our job right, our sons will leave us. Thing #2 graduated from high school last weekend and is heading to a university in Texas in August. Congratulations. And ugh. Senior year of high school, in case you might have forgotten, is an emotional roller coaster. Grouchy, surly, hormonal, college applications and deadlines, acceptances and rejections, excited about the future, anxious at the same time, looking forward to making new friends, frustrated with family, constantly on the verge of tears… and that was just me. My husband was a complete wreck.
I do not pray or journal or file paperwork nearly so regularly as I would like. I stack papers and notes on and around my desk in an attempt to keep track of ideas, receipts, projects, party invitations, but these items invariably get lost or neglected underneath more recent or urgent mail, bills, thank you cards and unsigned permission slips. When I do sit to pray or write, hungry creatures interrupt me. But one of the few things I do consistently – in addition to flossing, of course – is my morning and evening bowl meditation.
I read about this practice in the book, My Grandfather’s Blessings, in which the author describes a ritual she learned from a Tibetan nun. I have adopted this meditation practice for myself (with minor modifications). She fills a bowl from a running stream (or kitchen faucet) and places it on a sort of altar in a prominent location in her home so she can see it all day long. My “meditation bowl,” chipped in two places, sits adjacent to the kitchen sink. I have four kids, two cats and two dogs, all of them male. My cup runneth over. But the clean-up is easier if it runneth near the sink. At the end of her day, she empties the bowl pouring its contents back into the earth. I “dump mommy’s worries down the drain.”
Here’s the idea: “As the bowl fills, you receive your life openheartedly and unconditionally as your portion.” The bowl I use is large enough for me to spread one hand around each side of the bowl to hold its weight comfortably. It takes about a minute to fill my bowl to the brim, maybe less if I turn the faucet on stronger in my rush to get the kids to school. For me, there is a significant component of gratitude in this process. I’m really good at being grateful for the pleasant aspects of my life. I am less gifted at being grateful for the mess. It is counterintuitive for me to embrace, shall we say… Life’s continual unfolding. I would prefer to make my own selections off of Life’s menu. But grace grants me what I need, which is not necessarily the same as what I want.
Or maybe it is?
I thought giving birth to a 9-pound baby was painful, but the delivery of a 5-foot tall, 100-pound sad and angry pre-teen brings a whole new level of anguish. If you have been blessed with teenage step-children, you know what I’m talking about. I really could have used an epidural. When this boy was a freshman in high school I was in tears daily because I feared the child might never leave home. By his senior year I find myself in tears frequently because this young man is good and ready to go. He is going to leave a gaping hole in my heart when he does, as well as an empty bedroom which I intend to convert into a lovely, quiet study.
Accepting the invitation to use Life’s offerings – both good and bad – in the course of my day has demanded patience, compassion and trust. The ultimate goal is to move beyond categorizing life’s offerings as either “good” or “bad” and reach a place that transcends judgment. Obviously, I am not there yet. Hence the term “practice.”
The purpose of pouring the water back into the earth at the end of the day is to let it go and to rest. This process is not exactly my strong suit either. Sometimes I stand in front of the sink, holding my bowl with both hands, still fuming at an unkind word or other unfairness. I replay toxic conversations in my head, wishing I could rewind and take the opportunity to issue a vindictive or witty response that I hadn’t thought of earlier in the day, hoping for some kind of recompense or retribution, holding tightly to my own self-righteousness. Sometimes – with closed eyes and the brimming bowl cupped in both hands – I stand paralyzed by a frightening diagnosis, gripping the fullness of my fears. I yearn for control which is not mine, unwilling to yield. I know that my release will be in letting go but am still reluctant to do so. I make the conscious effort to relinquish power to Life itself, hoping that the Divine will not blink on His watch. Finally, with a long exhale, in a display of exhaustion and surrender, I tip the bowl toward the drain, close my eyes and spill its contents into the sink.
I have found this practice of acceptance and letting go profoundly healing in my own life, yielding some unexpected results. From early childhood, I suffered from nightmares. I had one particular recurring nightmare, usually once or twice a week, as well as fresh and terrifying ones, all of which left me breathless, heart hammering, and panicky in the dead of night. Once I started this meditation practice with the bowl, the nightmares stopped. Overnight. The few times I’ve experienced nightmares since were when I neglected to empty my bowl at the day’s close.
My daily practice – all of the little lettings go – has strengthened my capacity for the bigger letting go. Admittedly, this process is eased by the fact that we have two more sons at home and by the time the youngest heads off to college our oldest son may well be living at home again. Ironically, the letting go of the high school grad would not be nearly so painful had I not welcomed him in to begin with.
Our sons’ high school has a tradition at the Baccalaureate Mass where each of the boys brings his mother a rose, a gesture of gratitude for the sacrifices that mothers make for their sons. The church is packed – standing room only – and although my husband and I have spotted our boy among his senior class, he has not yet located us in the crowd. One by one the mothers around me are receiving roses and hugs from their sons, but mine has not arrived. We are sitting in our usual pew in the church, but he has not found us. My heart sinks. Maybe this rose ritual is too hard on him, in light of the fact that his mother died when he was eleven. The music continues, as do the mother-son embraces, and the seniors begin to take their seats again. Still, I do not see my boy, and my own heart beats faster and aches, and I try not to cry. Where is that boy? My husband is wide-eyed. Our son has searched the entire circumference of the church, and finally he finds me. Ours has not been an easy path. It has not been traditional. It has taken a long time to find each other. We arrive at this moment with a red rose, a pipe-organ crescendo and a mother-son relationship. I love him with my whole heart, and now it is time to let him go.
We moms are not known for our prowess at letting go, but children come equipped with strategies of their own. The last week or so of each of my pregnancies, when it was impossible to catch a full breath, and, like my lungs, my other organs were displaced and bruised, I reached a point where I thought “There is only enough room in this body for one us. Baby, you are going to have to go.” Launching a teenager has elements of this same discomfort. They take up so much space, making their presence felt in every room of the house, their volume extending to every corner. I have a palpable urge to reclaim the entire place for my own, to renovate their bedroom, put up a few bookshelves, neatly populated by quiet, orderly books.
There were many mornings during the course of this boy’s high school career when I stood at the sink, with my heart in my hands, open to receiving whatever the boy would bring me that day. His pain and grief have transformed me into a more patient and compassionate mother. Some days his raw emotions reduced me to a raging lunatic, and other days his gentleness and contagious joy softened my own sharp edges. We have practiced acceptance and forgiveness and found our way to bridge the distance between us.
As I stand on the threshold of my today and fill my bowl, it is my favorite kind of morning, cool and foggy “May gray,” the perfect weather for a run. Inhale. This kind of morning opens up into a clear blue afternoon. Hopeful inhale. I am recovering from a month’s struggle with bronchitis. Grateful inhale. Final exams week for the younger boys. Anxious inhale. It has been a week since graduation and I’ve reached my limit of sitting around, belching, grunting and Xboxing before the summer internship begins. Sharp inhale. My husband assures me that we will miss the litter of puppies some day. Not today. Inhale anyway. Sigh … Grocery list, laundry, powerpoint and prayer, the significant, the unremarkable, the productive, the transcendent. Inhale. My share of Life’s portion is rich and varied, sturdy and fragile.
As for the library (formerly known as his bedroom), my plans include a nice, quiet shrine to the graduates, where I will smile and cry and proudly display their photos, certificates and art projects. Meanwhile, the cat just snagged a new blouse, and I might be willing to let him go away to college too.
I hold the brimming bowl over the sink, breathe in hopes and disappointments, fears and frustrations, joys and accomplishments. I inhale, hold on, tip the bowl and let go. The slow exhale marks the end of my day.
Tomorrow, I will begin again. I will embrace a chipped bowl, breathe in the spirit of that moment, and recite a blessing from an Irish poet:
May you stand sure on your ground
And know that every grace you need
Will unfold before you
Like all the mornings of your life.
(John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us)
Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And grace for today.