Reclining Buddha carved in the Ajanta Caves in Northern India, dating to the 2nd century B.C.
I WANT TO BE BETTER
by Eve Toliman
I once read about a young man who joined an ashram (I think his name was Chris and I think the ashram was in San Francisco). At a certain point he slowed way down. He smiled sweetly and spoke less and less. His peers were awed by his spiritual progress. They tried to emulate what they believed was his serenity. Over a period of about a year, he became slower and stiller until he didn’t speak at all. He just smiled. A shiny, round, apple-cheeked young Buddha. Enlightenment. Turns out he had a massive brain tumor. His fellow aspirants had mistaken dullness for serenity. (I think pharmaceutical companies capitalize on a similar confusion.) I fear I am Chris (minus the sweetness) — something vital in me is being eclipsed by something vacuous.
I have a friend who won a silver medal for basketball at the World Games. Like many athletes, her body pioneering new limits, her performance a testament to human spirit and will, she was debilitated by injuries. Two surgeries later, never having achieved the peak of her athletic capability, she could no longer walk without pain. She can’t even bear to watch the game anymore. The love of her life is whole and well, blithely wooing others.
When I was 26 my mother was diagnosed with a terminal cancer. Ironically (or not) she had worked at Sloan-Kettering as an aide to an oncologist studying the same cancer that took her life at 55. We were a spirited and unbalanced group to begin with. During this last year of her life, when all hope died and the shadow of a guillotine draped everything we did, we were launched to new extremes. We drank harder, laughed harder, and pushed harder against the huge inevitability that was pushing toward us. I was doing computer projects — tedious, relentless attention to detail. As an antidote to the colossal left brain activity that occupied too much of my other time, I started drawing — a lot. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I took two three hour drawing classes back-to-back. I sketched still lifes in the morning with a brilliant, laser-like, high-speed printmaker whose work hung in the Guggenheim. As he passed by, people muttered about the effects of long-term exposure to printing chemicals. Hushed and inconclusive, it nonetheless impressed me with a desire to avoid printmaking. In the afternoon, I drew nude models with a sardonic landscape painter whose chosen genre had fallen out of popular consideration. He pursued his craft knowing it would never amount to anything more than it was, his own private communion with creativity.
One morning, I was drawing in Robert-the-twisted-printmaker’s class. He was talking non-stop, as usual, but for some reason on that particular morning he kept looming over my shoulder when I least expected it. I was trying to get into that right brain groove, just be my hands as Andrew Wyeth put it, when BAM, in my ear, rapid fire conceptual jargon. I would stop and wait for the clatter to move on. I finally gave up and just listened. Intermingled brilliance and nonsense. Impossible to ignore. Fascinating and grating, my left brain sifting, panning for gold. When I showed up for figure drawing, chalks in hand, model prepared, quick sketches done, I was paralyzed. I just stared, hoping, waiting for that right brain relief. Walt-the-pragmatist-painter finally asked, “Why aren’t you drawing?”
“I was listening to Robert all morning.”
“Oh, I understand.”
Here I sit, waiting for relief, stunned by the non-stop, clattering demands of a life — meals, laundry, dishes, money, phone snafu again, still haven’t replaced that spare tire, my daughter’s tooth needs to be pulled, I need a crown, (where are my son’s adult teeth?), finish the web copy, my passport’s expired, new doctor for the kids, back-to-school night, we are out of bread, invoice that client, oh god, I forgot to call the insurance agent — hoping, waiting for that right brain relief, spaciousness in which to feel and dream and do nothing at all. I feel dullness creeping over me. I watch my love blithely wooing others.
When my mother died, I stopped drawing all together. Ten years and two kids later, when divorce seemed inevitable, I started writing. It felt as if my soul had been startled into some kind of action and was now fighting for her life. It is ten years later again. My soul seems to be in some kind of tug-of-war with modern life. I am the rope. We are the rope. I hear the same things from friends. These are people who love their work, love their families, but feel eroded by the demands of managing their worldly lives. Perhaps it’s time of life. For those of us who didn’t give up, time is taunting us, drawing us out. If our souls are to have expression, it is now or never.
Perhaps the tug-of-war is created by my misperception. It is not the inevitable effect of an evil world against a pure soul, of endless tasks eclipsing meaning — it is the result of a false split. It is not worldly here and spiritual there, mundane here and creative there, rather it is love throughout. Driving to the mechanic, watching the teens in the crosswalk, waiting at the post office, calling the dentist,… The mundane simply raw material for creativity. Spaciousness throughout. No destination, just this. When I stop resisting the tug and just fall, a curious reversal occurs. That place of tension becomes the opening.
My boyfriend and I have been having the same fight for over a year. Every month or so, we approach the heated topic gingerly and within minutes it blows up again and we retreat. Yesterday morning, for the first time, we moved safely over the mined border into an entirely new landscape. Just like that, peace. In the evening, he turned to me and said, “I want to be better — better to you, better for you — than I know how to be.” I felt it enter my chest and move around. I realized, I want to be better, too — much better than I know how to be. Suddenly the tug-of-war is recast: It is not what’s keeping me from the fullness of my human life — it is my human life.